Jay-Anne Johnson has made history in the state of Virginia. The James Madison University graduate has just become the first Black woman in Virginia to earn a bachelor’s degree in biophysical chemistry. Her achievement becomes even more incredible when you consider that she stumbled upon the field of biophysical chemistry by accident as a high school student.
“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 told WHSV.
After discovering biophysical chemistry, Johnson went all-in on pursuing her passion. Along the way, she began to realize that she was one of the very few Black women breaking through in her biophysical chemistry studies.
“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,” she explained.
Her passion became a reality while in college. One of her favorite collegiate memories was presenting her very own research at a national conference.
“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,” Johnson's professor, Isaiah Sumner, said.
“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."
As Johnson ventures off into post-graduate life, she hopes that her work will leave a legacy for others to follow. While she will always be the first Black woman to graduate with such a degree in Virginia, she vows not to be the only Black woman to accomplish this feat in Virginia.
“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.
“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 added.
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