Jamaican-born student Jay-Anne Johnson is the first Black woman in Virginia to graduate with a degree in biophysical chemistry. At the start of her degree at James Madison University (JMU), she had no idea she would make history.
“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,” she said.
Johnson and her family emigrated from Jamaica to the U.S. when she was a child. She did not grow up wanting to be a biophysical chemist because she didn’t even know biophysical chemistry exists. She was interested in physics, chemistry, and biology and wondered how she could study all three at the same time.
“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 said.
JMU is the only school in the Commonwealth to offer a bachelor’s degree in biophysical chemistry, said Linette Watkins, head of the chemistry and biochemistry department at the university.
The first-ever Black person to graduate from JMU with a degree in biophysical chemistry was Ben Ashamole. Now, Johnson has become the first Black female to do the same.
“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,” Isaiah Sumner, a professor of chemistry at JMU, told WSHV.
Johnson, during her four years at JMU, co-founded the JMU Chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, helped create an LGBQT+ organization for minority students and was a member of a sorority.
“I think that she has made her mark on this campus. So many people know Jay-Anne and so many people will go on to do what she has done,” Johnson’s sorority sister Lauryn Johnson said.
Johnson, whose friends are proud of her feat, said she desires to see Black people flourish in STEM. “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.