African American role models: Realizing the dreams of our ancestors

Douglas Johnson
March 02, 2022
Outdoor Portrait Of Multi-Generation Family In Garden At Home Against Flaring Sun.
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Role models have played an important role throughout my life, and as I have gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate the impact they have on individuals – it can be beneficial or detrimental depending on their behaviors and perspectives.

One great example is Chadwick Boseman. As an actor, he was a huge inspiration within our community. This was especially apparent when he played the lead role in the major film, Black Panther. Although many of us have never personally met him, his death in 2020 from cancer shocked the world; not only from the surprise of his publicly abrupt passing, but also the fact that he completed multiple action movies following his diagnosis in 2016.

This taught many of us how to stay resilient in the face of adversity.

One lesson I learned before graduate school is how to efficiently learn from someone else’s experiences. Growing up as an African American male, finding an overall positive role model in my life was a selective process. The role models I found influenced different aspects of my life; some helped me focus on academics; some guided my abilities towards sports; some centered around my happiness as a developing adolescent.

Personally, my first role model was my mom. My initial interest in the biomedical field began when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. Throughout her treatment, I stayed close with my mom and witnessed her resilience and perseverance against all odds – dealing with interference from family, friends and work, while at the same time caring for three children. 

"Whether it’s a friend, family member or celebrity, we can learn a lot from our role models while inspiring others. That is what I feel helps most in our community, paving the way for our continued greatness along with those following in our footsteps."

-- Douglas Johnson

Additionally, the medical staff was helpful in easing our anxieties and answering our many questions. Talking to the treatment team ignited a desire in me to be a beacon of hope for those going through a similar situation. Eventually, through this experience, mixed with microbiology and bioinformatic research, I realized that biomedical/translational research would be a great way to make a difference in people’s lives.

However, during this time, not many people in my community had much knowledge or experience in the sciences. This made my growing interest in science more difficult – I lacked a role model I could identify with and follow their path. Thankfully, with support from some of my inspirations including my mom, Uncle Terry, and Aunt Judy, I attended undergraduate school with a passion for science.

The summer before my freshman year, I met another major role model in my life, Rachel Law, the Eagle STEM Scholars Program Director. Mrs. Law followed the progress of the students in the program from senior year of high school to graduation. She too was an African American STEM academic. She helped me improve my discipline and network with scientists which gave me research experience. She also unofficially counseled me on a weekly basis. By adopting an inviting personality, she decreased the pressure I felt by having genuine conversations and expressing her undying support to us as students. Her support meant the world, especially at a time when we were transitioning to college and realizing our identities.

For some, this is all that’s needed to grow their seed of knowledge as they begin to obtain nutrients from a healthy environment and like-minded individuals, but I went one step further. I had the pleasure of joining a volunteer program that worked with low-income students at a local elementary school. We dedicated time to leading fun science experiments, attending their science fair, and participating in after-school engineering activities.

Following one experiment, a student stayed behind to ask further questions about what I did at school. I told him small details about taking classes, interacting with scientists and surveying samples in the environment. During the conversation, he maintained a lively facial expression while continuing to ask questions. Before leaving, he mentioned how he was excited to learn more about science and how he wanted to become a scientist one day.

For me, that was a pivotal moment in my career and helped me understand two things. First, anyone can be a role model in some capacity. For me, a role model was someone I could look to for guidance and understanding of an unknown topic – seeing how they react to a situation, learning what questions to ask to obtain helpful answers, and shaping my behavior in response to something unfamiliar.

Second, it helped me understand that things I think are expected or typical, such as attending class/meetings and conducting experiments, could be viewed as influential in the eyes of another individual. For me, these mundane events were steppingstones on my career path; however, these steppingstones could be viewed as monumental achievements to someone with an outside perspective.

These positive experiences have instilled in me a desire to continue reaching out to my community and fostering STEM exposure to younger students. Additionally, I want to continue sharing my experiences as an underrepresented student to encourage the younger generation and show them that their dreams can be a reality, just as others have done for me.

I now better understand that some in our community don’t reach for the stars due to lack of support or exposure to diverse options. Whether it’s a friend, family member or celebrity, we can learn a lot from our role models while inspiring others. That is what I feel helps most in our community, paving the way for our continued greatness along with those following in our footsteps.