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She Just Made History As The First Black Woman To Earn A Biophysical Chemistry Degree in Virginia

She Just Made History As The First Black Woman To Earn A Biophysical Chemistry Degree in Virginia

She’s the first at the school and in the state!

A James Madison University (JMU) student is making history as the first Black woman to earn a biophysical chemistry degree in Virginia, WHSV news reports. 

Jay-Anne Johnson didn’t initially know what she planned to major in when she went to college. She enjoyed several subjects, particularly in the sciences, coming across biophysical chemistry as a major when she was still 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,” Johnson recalled.

That’s when she decided to attend JMU, the only school in the state of Virginia offering the degree. Johnson had no idea that she would soon make history, becoming the first Black woman to graduate from JMU with a degree in the subject. She follows in the footsteps of Ben Ashamole, the first Black person to graduate with a biophysical chemistry degree at JMU.

Johnson said she didn’t realize when she first began attending JMU that there would be such a dearth in the number of students of color.

“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. 

Isaiah Sumner, a chemistry professor at JMU, first met Johnson as a freshman in his lab; he said she stood out for more reasons than one. 

“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. "In one of the conferences I got an e-mail from someone out of the blue who had seen her present her work and said ‘Wow, this is fantastic! She should come to my school for graduate work!’ and that’s the first time that’s ever actually happened...I told her once, ‘You may be the first Black woman to earn this degree, but guaranteed you’re not going to be the last. You opened doors that weren’t open before,."

The Dumfries, VA resident, by way of Jamaica, co-founded the JMU Chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. She also helped with the creation of an LGBTQ+ organization for minority students, all while serving as a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated. 

Johnson is currently working on a publication based on her studies. She hopes that her story inspires other Black and minority students to build careers in the sciences. 

“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...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,” Johnson said.

Congratulations, Jay-Anne!

Photo Courtesy of WHSV