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JMU student becomes first Black woman to graduate with biophysical chemistry degree in Virginia

James Madison University is the only school in Virginia to offer this degree
Published: Apr. 27, 2021 at 7:31 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 27, 2021 at 7:41 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - In about a week and a half, Jay-Anne Johnson of Dumfries will be the first Black female student to graduate from James Madison University with a bachelor’s degree in biophysical chemistry.

Linette Watkins, head of the chemistry and biochemistry department at the university, said JMU is the only school in the Commonwealth to offer this degree making Johnson the first female Black student to have this achievement in Virginia.

Johnson stumbled upon the biophysical chemistry major when she was 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 said.

Little did Johnson know, she would be the first Black woman in Virginia to graduate with the degree.

“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,” Johnson said.

Isaiah Sumner, a professor of chemistry at JMU, met Johnson four years ago.

“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.

But, Johnson said it was hard to not recognize that she stood out for other reasons.

“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.

Sumner watched her grow and go on to present research at national conferences.

“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 every actually happened,” Sumner said.

A publication based on Johnson’s studies is in the works.

Her friends said Johnson’s impact on the school can be seen through the list of clubs and organizations of which she is a member.

“Jay-Anne, she is so involved in so much stuff. Honestly, if you want to spend time with her, she has to look at her planner,” Lauryn Johnson, Jay-Anne’s sorority sister, said.

Johnson co-founded the JMU Chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. She was in a sorority and helped create an LGBQT+ organization for minority students.

“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,” Lauryn said.

Johnson hopes that other Black and minority students will follow in her footsteps.

“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.

Those who know Johnson said they have no doubt she will continue to inspire.

“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.

Ben Ashamole was the first Black person to graduate with a biophysical chemistry degree at JMU, Watkins said.

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