Finding My Voice

    Biomedical engineer, Khari Johnson, explains how underrepresentation in STEM fields is not due to lack of interest, aptitude or talent, but instead due to a number of systemic barriers.

    ByKhari JohnsonNOVA Science StudioNOVA Science Studio

    Science and I have had a love-hate relationship for as long as I can remember. Both of my parents are electrical engineers by training, so it was pretty much a safe bet that I would follow in their footsteps in some capacity. My earliest signs of problem-solving skills occurred as early as two years old when, based on my parent’s account of the event, I managed to escape my crib one night by unlocking the safety gate. I then proceeded to crawl down a flight of stairs to the kitchen where I gathered a mixing bowl, box of cereal, and a knife to prepare a midnight snack. Of course, I have no recollection of these events as you could imagine, but my parents bring out a baby photo every time they tell this story as evidence of precocious engineering skills.

    Black ingenuity and imagination have produced some of the world’s finest discoveries across scientific fields, including modern medicine, agriculture, aeronautics, and others. Yet, we are still underrepresented in the professional and academic fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). When I think about my crib escape as a child, I’m reminded that underrepresentation is not due to lack of interest, aptitude or talent, but instead a large number of systemic barriers.

    Khari Johnson stands proudly with classmates on graduation day from Howard University. Pictured, from left, are Khari Johnson, Nolan English, Alexis Oyetibo, Julian Moorehead, Terqueasha Wooten, and Ola Jide Olagunju. Photo courtesy of Khari Johnson.

    Growing up as a Black male in Northern Virginia, I was a quiet kid. I did not have many friends and building projects at home tended to fill that void. I was always inquisitive about how things were made, and science class fueled that passion. Once I entered high school, my fascination with science turned into love after I took my first chemistry course. I had the opportunity to apply all the science concepts in the lab section of the class and I was hooked. A few years later, I decided to take an AP chemistry course. I wish I could say my experience with that course was all butterflies and roses, but that is far from the truth. In addition to being exposed to advanced chemistry concepts for the first time, I was also being exposed to the implicit bias of my classmates and teacher. My high school was predominately white and I was the only Black student enrolled in the AP chemistry course. Though my overall experience with the content was positive, I remember constantly feeling like I had to prove my spot in the course and every answer I gave whether on homework or test questions was overly critiqued. It was only after completing the course that my suspicions were validated during an exchange that went on to impact the rest of my life.

    During my senior year of high school, it became clear that my passion for chemistry and material science was a natural fit for pursuing a chemical engineering degree in college. I remember approaching my AP chemistry teacher and asking her to write a letter of recommendation for my college applications. She responded by stating that I may want to look into an easier major based on the B letter grade I received in the class. In her eyes, she could not see me succeeding in an Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology or ABET accredited chemical engineering program. She refused to write the letter and instead recommended that I take pre-engineering courses at my local community college. I remember feeling like my dreams had been crushed as I rode the bus home that day, but this unnerving experience is not singular or unique to me. In fact, former First Lady Michelle Obama often speaks of a similar experience where her guidance counselor advised that her Ivy League dreams were too big for her. Being raised by two Black engineers, I realize now that I had been insulated in an environment where I saw people who looked like me excel in STEM, but that all changed the minute I walked out of my front door. The field was riddled with racial bias and I found there were instances that both explicitly or implicitly discouraged my participation and that of my non-white peers. Now, looking back on the experience with the benefit of hindsight, I am thankful to my AP chemistry teacher for her response and what it revealed to me about the world I was planning to enter. That interaction led me to attend Howard University. This historically Black college and university (HBCU) functioned as a supportive community during my undergraduate career, and was certainly the best choice for me. In addition to providing me with a solid foundation to compete academically at the graduate school level, the faculty at Howard University emphasized the importance of leadership and community service. I earned my BS in chemical engineering from Howard University graduating with Magna Cum Laude honors.

    Both of Khari Johnson’s parents are electrical engineers by training. On the day he received his Master of Science degree in biomedical engineering from Duke University, his mother Keturah Johnson was standing right by his side. Photo courtesy of Khari Johnson.

    After graduating from Howard University, I continued my education, earning a Master of Science degree in biomedical engineering at Duke University. I was attracted to this field by the idea of applying my knowledge of materials science to create medical devices or therapies to help reduce health disparities in the Black community. I enjoyed biomedical engineering so much that I have continued onto the doctoral program where I currently am a rising fourth year student. Having been in school for roughly twenty years now, I have been able to reflect on the things I wish I knew prior to heading off to college. Here are my three takeaways from my personal experience and what I would like to tell the next generation about moving forward with a STEM career:

    1. Grades Are Like Trading Cards

    Throughout my childhood, I was an adamant collector of Yu-Gi-oh trading cards. Not only because I thoroughly loved the show, but these cards were better than currency during lunch time for most of my adolescent years. In similar fashion, having good grades should not be taken lightly. Grades in college reflect your acquisition and mastery of content knowledge and skill sets and are viewed as trading goods to a potential employer or graduate school recruiter.

    2. Hobbies Make the Scientist

    A common stereotype of a scientist is someone who lacks interpersonal skills and has no hobbies outside of science. Not only is that a misconception of many people in the profession, but I would also argue that having hobbies actually makes you a better scientist. Effective science at the graduate level requires proper work life balance and during my free time, I love to watch Sci-Fi movies, listen to hip hop and R&B music, and play pick-up basketball with friends. There have been countless times where I have used metaphors from sports or lyrics from my favorite songs to illustrate points about challenging science topics or my research area to my peers. I believe a big part of building trust between scientists and the public is relatability and being able to communicate science concepts in everyday life.

    3. Do Not Wait on Research

    As I mentioned earlier, some of the most profound educational experiences I have gotten came from applying science in lab settings. For many Black high school students, acquiring college or graduate school-level research experiences can be difficult due to limited access to these institutions, but there are great programs that exist for this purpose. Check out the emerging minority supporting summer programs such as the MITES/MOSTEC program at MIT and the STEP-UP program at NIH which are geared towards increasing minority representation in STEM through gaining hands-on experience.

    Having the opportunity to collaborate with the NOVA Science Studio this summer (through a partnership with Duke University and the nonprofit research institute, RTI International) has been invigorating. Not only were my thoughts and experiences welcomed with open arms, but it gave me a chance to reflect on my personal journey with science. Science communication is one skillset I wish I had more opportunity in my adolescence to develop, so it has been great being a part of a program that fosters an environment for underrepresented students to develop those skills. Here is what I would tell those students specifically: I hope the message you take from this post is that your thoughts and contributions to STEM matter. Good grades, consistent hobbies, and early research experiences are just a few ways to fortify your skills on your STEM journey. Seeking out supportive communities like the one I found at Howard University and the ones being built at the NOVA Science Studio are key to your success and they push us all closer to our ultimate goal of increasing minority representation in STEM. Through opportunities such as these, I believe we get one step closer to a world in which young people no longer settle for anything less than what they are capable of achieving.