The University of Alabama at Huntsville is more than Kimberly Green Hobbs’ alma mater; it’s where she found her heart’s work — and Dr. Adriel Johnson.
“Since the first meeting, I got the feeling he was serious and sincere about seeing students succeed,” Green Hobbs said. “I saw a mentor from the beginning. Coming from Chicago, I was alone, but it comforted me that I had somebody to mentor me in the program.”
Johnson, 52, was one of three professors who died in a Feb. 12 shooting at a UAH biology department faculty meeting. Alleged shooter Dr. Amy Bishop, a biology professor, shot six of her colleagues, killing 52-year-olds Dr. Maria Ragland Davis, a specialist in molecular biology and plant genetics, and Dr. Gopi Podila, the department chair who helped launch the doctoral program in biology. Three others were injured.
As one of the few doctoral students of color in the biology department, Green Hobbs worked with all three of the slain and is intimately acquainted with their mission to bring under-represented minorities into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“It was a close-knit department with a lot of students but not a lot of faculty,” Green Hobbs said. “We worked hard to make the department successful and now pretty much half of our faculty was taken from us.”
It was through Alabama’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program that Green Hobbs came to UAH, where she is now working toward a Ph.D. The program is the primary pipeline for students of color to earn degrees in STEM disciplines. Johnson, a specialist in cell biology and nutritional physiology, ran the UAH chapter.
LSAMP, funded by the National Science Foundation, operates in dozens of colleges and universities in nearly all 50 states.
Johnson was Green Hobbs’ adviser and the encouraging voice in her head. For many, sources say, Johnson’s death means adopting his mantra of community responsibility and continuing the effort to educate minority students in the sciences.
“There are shoes that definitely can’t be filled by his absence,” said Dr. Carl Pettis, interim chair of the math and computer science department at Alabama State University and an LSAMP scholar. “All you hope to do is pick up the pieces and try to move forward in the way he would want us to. Not to fill a void but to move forward.”
For close to 20 years, the Alabama LSAMP has helped thousands of under-represented minority students earn more STEM-related degrees at Alabama’s higher education institutions. Using scholarships, personal advising and other support services, LSAMP scholars participate in research early and map out their academic careers with experienced professors.
Johnson was UAH’s leader working to change the landscape of the nation’s most exclusive fields. Through a partnership with 11 other Alabama institutions, he helped build a program that boasted impressive results.
When the LSAMP program started in 1991, Alabama schools produced 437 minority graduates with bachelor’s degrees in STEM disciplines. Each year brought successive gains, and in 2008 degrees granted numbered 939. In total, more than 14,000 minority students in Alabama have earned bachelor’s degrees in STEM through participation in the Alabama LSAMP, data show.
At UAH, which has hosted the program since 1993, 630 undergraduate students have completed degrees in the STEM fields.
Johnson was commended for single-handedly increasing minority enrollment at predominantly White UAH through the program, said Dr. Louis Dale, LSAMP’s principal investigator for the state.
“His work was this program, and recruiting these students really helped to increase the African-American presence on that campus,” said Dale, who also serves as vice president for equity and diversity at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. “He was an outstanding site coordinator and a very dedicated individual. He loved working with students, and they are going to be devastated by this.”
Green Hobbs said she is collecting her memories, trying to recover Johnson’s indispensible advice. Since 1998 she’s been Johnson’s student, receiving his honest critiques of her work. She said she will miss that as she finishes her terminal degree in biotechnology science in the next two years.
“Dr. Johnson never sugarcoated anything,” said Green Hobbs, who also authored research papers with Bishop. “He practically perfected constructive criticism, but you took what he said anyways and moved forward. Everything he told us was to make us better academically, professionally and personally.”
Pettis remembered Johnson’s insistent admonition to pay forward the favors they as students had received through LSAMP. Pettis is a member of the first cohort of students in the “Bridge to the Doctorate” program initiated by the Alabama LSAMP in 2003.
“It was your responsibility to do so,” Pettis said, recalling Johnson’s words. “He always said you should help people as you go along because there is always someone trying to get to where you are.”
Today, Pettis is the principal investigator of the same program at Alabama State.
Dr. Kenneth LaiHing, an LSAMP director at nearby Oakwood University, said Johnson worked tirelessly to bring people together for the same cause, sponsoring workshops, speaking to large numbers of students and meeting with colleagues regularly.
Johnson had been planning a regional conference for LSAMP students to present their research in mid-April, but instead colleagues, including his wife, Dr. Jacqueline Johnson, a professor and extension veterinarian at Alabama A&M University, organized the event.
“His life was about service, and he tried to instill that in us,” Green Hobbs said. “We want to be successful as people but not be selfish.”
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