Ashanti Johnson

Mercer University-Cirrus Academy

2016 Excellence in Earth and Space Science Education Award Winner

Ashanti Johnson received the 2016 Excellence in Geophysical Education Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 14 December 2016 in San Francisco, Calif. The award honors “a sustained commitment to excellence in geophysical education by a team, individual, or group.”


Over the past 15 years, Ashanti has worked tirelessly to bridge the inherent gaps that exist for groups historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields through developing successful programs such as the Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success in Earth System Science (MS PHD’S®), the Classroom and Community Engagement and Mentoring Program, and the new ­MS PHD’S-GEO Research Experience for Undergraduates Professional Development Program. All three programs were born out of the critical need for professional development, research, and networking opportunities for underrepresented minority students, and they have effectively catalyzed an ever growing community of support and encouragement that was previously lacking for nonmajority students in STEM.

During her service in these noteworthy roles, Ashanti has been a stalwart advocate for supporting underrepresented youth who reflect talent in STEM professions, especially in the geosciences. She has been a stellar role model, continuing her research in marine science while pursuing the professional development of students and building diversity initiatives in STEM through the integration of research and education.

Ashanti also served as the president of the Institute for Broadening Participation (IBP), which has the mission of increasing diversity in the STEM workforce. IBP Pathways to Science has worked to help talented, underrepresented people at many different levels—K–12 education, higher ­education/­college, and professional—find suitable STEM programs, funding, mentors, and other resources.

Ashanti has also made significant contributions to broadening participation for hundreds of (diverse) young scientists. Ashanti has served as assistant vice provost for faculty recruitment for the University of Texas at Arlington’s Division of Faculty, extending her support of diversity yet another step forward in the ranks of geoscience faculty.

Ashanti is the current CEO and superintendent of Cirrus Academy Charter School, which uses an integrated, hands-on curriculum based on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) for kindergarten through twelfth grade. As the CEO, her goal is to ensure that every student has access to the tools needed to exceed world-class standards and to compete for college admissions and jobs in an increasingly globalized economy.

Ashanti’s outstanding educational contributions and sustained commitment to excellence in geophysical education and advancing groups historically underrepresented in STEM to serve the geophysical profession and society make her an excellent recipient of this award.

—Melanie Harrison Okoro, NOAA Fisheries, Sacramento, Calif.


First, I would like to thank Dr. Melanie Harrison Okoro for her kind and thoughtful words. I am truly honored to receive the 2016 AGU Excellence in Geophysical Education Award.

After taking a moment to reflect on my past educational experiences and activities, I am extremely grateful for opportunities and resources to assist so many talented and committed geoscience students and young professionals from underserved and underrepresented minority (URM) populations.

In 1993, I became the first African American to receive a marine science B.S. degree from Texas A&M University at Galveston. Six years later, I became the first African American to receive a doctoral degree in chemical oceanography from Texas A&M.

While some who learn of these achievements may immediately celebrate, others might ponder what I experienced on the road to receiving these recognitions. I quickly recall the fact that the last time I attended a class with another African American student or was taught by an African American was in high school. In third grade I decided to pursue an oceanography career. As a student in talented and gifted programs in Dallas, Texas, public schools from the third to the twelfth grade, I conducted annual ocean science research projects. It was not until twelfth grade that I learned of Dr. Ernest Everett Just, an African American marine scientist who died in 1941. Despite the absence of contemporary African American role models, I was determined to make positive contributions to the geosciences.

It was my grandmother, Clemateen Williamson; my mother, Dr. Vivian Williamson Whitney; and my father, Don Johnson, who instilled in me the belief that I was capable of achieving my goals and was responsible for helping others to do likewise. This belief and sense of responsibility remain and influence my actions in each URM mentoring, professional development, and funding program that I participate in, coordinate, and/or direct.

In reflecting on the many accomplishments of the amazing URM geoscience students with whom I have interacted, I am excited to report that with sustained ­community-­supported efforts, we are now poised to be able to celebrate URM geoscience students who, instead of being “firsts,” are achieving their goals in substantial numbers.

In accepting this award, I celebrate our community’s efforts to facilitate increased diversity and the accomplishments of young geoscientists from underserved and underrepresented populations.

—Ashanti Johnson, Mercer University and Cirrus Academy Charter School, Macon, Ga.