As a child, young Ashanti Johnson fell in love with marine science, sparked by hours of watching the famed Jacques Cousteau exploring the deep blue world.
Yet as a high school senior in landlocked North Texas, the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park gave her the first taste of what would become a remarkable and inspiring career.
Today, Dr. Johnson is an associate professor of environmental sciences and assistant vice provost for faculty recruitment at the University of Texas of Arlington. But in the summer of 1988, she was a teenager with a passion for the science of the ocean.
A meeting with the director of the Dallas Zoo gave her an opportunity be a youth volunteer.
“He wanted me to work with snakes, and I don’t do snakes,” she recalls.
The Children’s Aquarium was much more to her liking.
“[My family] would spend a lot of time walking through the different museums on the weekend,” she said. “Going to Fair Park was the closest they could get me to marine science.”
Johnson volunteered at the Children’s Aquarium during her senior year in 1988-89. Her work was definitely “not glamorous,” she says: cleaning glass, cutting fish, sweeping and mopping. But her passion never waned.
“Growing up, we were supposed to be productive as we pursued our interests and give back,” she says about the importance of volunteering.
Johnson went on to become the first African-American to receive a marine science degree at Texas A&M University at Galveston. She then earned a Ph.D. in oceanography from Texas A&M.
She’s worked all across the globe as one of the first female African-American chemical oceanographers, inspiring hundreds through her Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success in Earth System Science initiative.
Her passion for mentorship was rewarded with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 2009.
“One of my biggest pleasures is helping other people achieve their dreams,” Johnson says.
Visiting the Children’s Aquarium, the Zoo and museums as a child was critical to her successful career, she believes. Those successes were recently spotlighted by Fox and Friends for Black History Month.
“Life experiences help children imagine and dream,” she said. “It’s much more impactful than being in front of a computer.”
(Imagine what volunteering could do for your child – or for you! More than 1,000 people volunteer each year at the Dallas Zoo and the Children’s Aquarium. Visit dallaszoo.com for details on how to join us.)