Early next month, Jay-Anne Johnson will graduate from James Madison University as the first Black woman to complete a bachelor’s degree in biophysical chemistry.
“Someone from Jamaica who came here as a kid, emigrated and everything, can still shock the world and shock herself in a sense. And if I can do it, anyone can do it,” Johnson told Virginia news station WHSV.
Johnson discovered her passion for biophysical chemistry as a student in high school.
“I couldn’t really decide, ‘Do I want to do physics? Do I want to do chemistry? Do I want to do biology?’ So, I was like ‘Let me see if biophysical chemistry exists,’ so I kind of Googled it one night,” she said.
The goal of a biophysical chemist is to “provide physical explanations for the ways in which important biological systems function,” according to Yale’s chemistry department.
Linette Watkins, JMU’s head of the chemistry and biochemistry department, said James Madison is the only school in the state of Virginia to offer the specific degree, which qualifies Johnson as the first female Black student to have earned the degree in the entire state, WHSV reports.
Isaiah Sumner, a chemistry professor at the school, recalled meeting Johnson four years ago. He said she was doing remarkable things as a freshman.
“Jay-Anne joined my lab as a first-year student, which is kind of remarkable in itself. A lot of first-year students don’t feel ready to join a chemistry lab, let alone what I do, so that first made Jay-Anne stand out,” Sumner said.
Still, the college student said it was hard to ignore that she stood out for reasons outside of her academic prowess.
“It wasn’t until really like the first couple of weeks of class. You’re looking around and you kind of notice you’re the only student in the class that looks like you,” Johnson said.
Over time, the biophysical chemistry major found and built her community. Johnson co-founded the JMU Chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, joined historic Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., and helped create an LGBQT+ organization for minority students.
“Jay-Anne, she is so involved in so much stuff. Honestly, if you want to spend time with her, she has to look at her planner,” Lauryn Johnson, Jay-Anne’s sorority sister, said.
In a decade’s time, Jay-Anne envisions a world fruitful with Black STEM professionals.
“Together in hopefully five or 10 years, we flood the hospitals, we flood the health care world, we flood the stem field with Black chemists, with Black engineers, with Black biologists, and just let them know that we as Black people are amazing,” she said.
While the future graduate is slated to become the first Black woman to receive a biophysical chemistry degree from the university, a man named Ben Ashamole was the first Black person to graduate with a biophysical chemistry degree from JMU, per WHSV.
According to JMU’s website, the school wrote that it is addressing diversity in the STEM field by reimagining its approach to incorporating social justice elements.
“We are developing new on-campus high school STEM programs that aim to facilitate students’ understanding of social injustices by showing them how they can be part of the solution through applying the skills and ways of thinking used in the integration of Science, Engineering, Technology, and Mathematics,” the university said.