Jamaican Jay-Anne Johnson is set to be the first Black female student to graduate from James Madison University (JMU) in Virginia with a Bachelor’s degree in biophysical chemistry. According to Linette Watkins, the head of the university’s chemistry and biochemistry department, James Mason University is the only school in the Virginia Commonwealth to offer this degree.
Johnson was undecided about her educational path in high school and considered going into both chemistry and biology at times. She ultimately decided to discover whether such a thing as biophysical chemistry existed, and through a Google search, found that it did. Little did she know that she would one day make history in her pursuit of a biochemistry degree.
According to Isaiah Sumner, professor of chemistry at JMU, Johnson joined his lab as a first-year student in 2018, which he noted as “kind of remarkable in itself,” as many first-year students do not feel ready to join a chemistry lab in general and one like his in particular. Johnson said it was also difficult for her to avoid realizing that she stood out for other reasons. She said that it took a few weeks in class before she noticed that she was the only Black student there.
Sumner followed her growth as a biochemistry student with interest and watched her go on to present her research at national conferences. At one of the conferences, he received an email from someone who saw her present her work and wrote “Wow, this is fantastic! She should come to my school for graduate work!” This was the first time anything like that had ever happened, Sumner added. A publication based on Johnson’s work is currently in preparation.
Johnson’s sorority sister Lauryn Johnson described Jay-Anne as being “so involved in so much stuff” that she has to check her planner to schedule time with friends. Johnson’ impact on the JMU is evident in the list of clubs and organizations she belongs to. She is the co-founder of the JMU Chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. She belonged to a sorority and also helped to establish an LGBTQ+ organization for minority students at James Madison University (JMU) in Virginia.
Lauryn said the Jay-Anne has made her mark on the campus. Many people know her, and many are likely to follow in her footsteps. Johnson is hoping that other Black and minority students will, saying that in five or ten years, students like her will “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.”
Everyone who knows Johnson, including Professor Sumner, has no doubt that she will go on to inspire others in the future. “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,” Sumner said.