Growing up, I used to watch graduation ceremonies at local universities, which were screened live on TV, officiated by the president. I could not help but notice that the majority of graduates were males. Women were seen in small number, mainly for degrees in education. The sciences appeared to be only for the young men.
Therefore, it is with great pride that I smile today because Jamaican-born student Jay-Anne Johnson has become the first black woman in Virginia to graduate with a degree in biophysical chemistry. A woman of colour attaining this brings great satisfaction.
“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 said to Face 2 Race Africa.
Johnson and her family emigrated from Jamaica to the U.S. when she was a child. Growing up, she did not aspire to be a biophysical chemist; in fact, she did not know such a degree existed even though she had a keen interest in physics, chemistry, and biology. She wondered how she could study them all at once.
Isaiah Sumner, a chemistry professor, told the media that Johnson joined her lab as a first-year student, and it was remarkable in itself as many first-year students do not prefer the chemistry lab. This choice made Johnson stand out.
In her four years at the James Madison University (JMU), the history maker co-founded the JMU Chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers and helped create an LGBQT+ organization for minority students. She was also a member of a sorority.
The first black female biophysical chemist joins Ben Ashamole in the history books. Ashamole was the first black person to graduate with the same degree at JMU. Her desire is to see black people flourish in STEM and flood the hospitals, the healthcare world, as well as the engineering and biology sectors in the next five to 10 years.
Phoebie Shamiso Chigonde is a journalist passionate about gender equality, social development programmes and grassroots-based solution seeking initiatives. She has a passion for women and community development. Phoebie is also a radio personality at a regional commercial radio station, a platform that enables her to network with like-minded women, journalists and activists as she continues to document and tell the story of the ordinary woman from the lens of that very ordinary woman.