Increasing Diversity in Geosciences

Jul 16, 2018

Dr. Ashanti Johnson


A few weeks ago, we spoke with a young ocean researcher who was struck by the lack of diversity among her colleagues and decided to dig deeper. Emily Cooperdock and a colleague got their hands on four decades worth of data and found that years of talk and diversity initiatives have done little to actually increase the representation of women and minorities in earth and ocean sciences.

Ashanti Johnson has dedicated her career to trying to change that. She spent fifteen years as a researcher and administrator, mentoring students and young researchers, and leading initiatives to engage more minority students in the sciences. She has been recognized with the US Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring and the prestigious American Geophysical Union Excellence in Geophysical Education and Ambassador Award. She is currently CEO and Superintendent of Cirrus Academy, a state-wide STEAM charter school system in Georgia. 

She knew she wanted to be a scientist in the 3rd grade after being inspired by Jacque Cousteau's television series, and she began working towards that goal.

In graduate school, however, she endured a lot. Johnson was referred to as "little black girl" by one of her professors, at her first year there, a KKK rally was held on school grounds, and behind closed doors, she said, "there was a lot of crying and screaming."

Despite it all, Johnson made it through and was the first African American to receive a PhD in Oceanography from Texas A&M. She credits her success to her ability to focus on the task at hand - achieving her PhD, but also to the support of her church family.

Now, she's a leader and a mentor to many, and encourages organizations to act with diversity in mind.  

"You have to look at people in the position of power; having them embrace the work of research that’s shown that diverse learners outperform learners of the same type," Johnson said.

"If we want long-term change, then we need to invest in it."