In 1982, Marsha Rhea Williams became the first African American woman to earn a doctorate degree in computer science. Forty-one years later, higher education is still celebrating important firsts for Black women in computing. This month, UC Irvine is recognizing Jazette Johnson and Lucretia Williams as the first Black women to earn their Ph.D. degrees in informatics from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS).
While neither set out to be role models, they’re sending an important message to Black girls in STEM. They’re also illustrating the benefits of cultivating diverse perspectives in academia and tech innovation, with novel research that is expanding the lens through which we view digital spaces and redefining who technology serves.
Discovering Doctoral Aspirations
While Johnson was an undergraduate studying computer science at Spelman College, she was tasked with coming up with a “big idea” for a research project. Inspired by her grandmother (living with dementia) and aunt (a dementia caregiver), she decided to design a music therapy application for people living with dementia and for sharing related caregiver information. At one point during her research, a faculty member, impressed by her work, noted that this was a great first step toward earning a doctoral degree.
“I’m a first-generation student, so I had no idea what a doctor was,” says Johnson. “I’m calling these people ‘doctor,’ and I don’t know what I’m saying. Do they do medicine on the side?” The professor’s casual assumption of Johnson’s future aspirations put her on a new path. “That actually sent me on a journey of wanting to get a Ph.D. in human-computer interaction.” She went on to earn her master’s degree in HCI from Vanderbilt University before coming to UCI.
Williams laughs as she listens to Johnson tell this story, remembering her own happenstance introduction to academic research as an undergraduate student studying psychology at Howard University. “There was free food in a room one day,” she says, “so I went in!” That’s when she learned about a paid research opportunity at Howard through the Center for Science of Information at Purdue University. “So that’s when I started my research.”
Based on her own personal experiences, Williams decided to design a mental health app for students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The response to her work was overwhelmingly positive. Encouraged by her mentor, Howard Professor Gloria Washington, she considered continuing her research and earning a master’s degree. “Dr. Washington is the main reason I applied to grad school,” says Williams. “She walked me through the grad school process.” This included introducing her to Professor Tamara Clegg, who asked why she didn’t just directly apply to a Ph.D. program, and to Sharnnia Artis, former dean of the ICS Office of Access and Inclusion. “Prior to that, I didn’t even know UCI existed!” She earned her master’s degree in informatics at UCI before continuing with her Ph.D. studies.
Jazette Johnson: Championing Inclusivity in Online Spaces
Johnson now plans to work in industry as a user experience (UX) researcher who champions inclusivity in supportive online spaces. Her dissertation, which she successfully defended in February, explores how young caregivers of people living with dementia use social media as a form of support. What she found through her work was a need to expand people’s views of the term “caregiver” and to find new ways to offer a sense of community.
“There’s a lot of young Black and Brown caregivers out there who may not identify as being a caregiver,” says Johnson, “because within those cultures, they just see it as, ‘I’m caring for my mom.’” Furthermore, when these communities did reach out for help, they often didn’t see themselves reflected in the traditional support groups they joined. Such groups “were majority white, maybe 65 and older, caring for a spouse,” says Johnson. “Compared to a younger caregiver who has to care for a parent or grandparent, it’s just not the same type of care. It’s not the same type of journey.”
Johnson has prioritized working with a diverse span of caregivers, across different age groups and ethnicities, and finding new ways of building virtual support systems. “What my dissertation work found is that many young caregivers are using sites such as TikTok, Instagram and Facebook as a way to build a new community that is [not like] typical support groups.” Johnson has worked to create safe and welcoming online spaces that, at the same time, protect the privacy of individuals with dementia.
Lucretia Williams: Designing for Cultural Responsiveness
Williams, who will be returning to Howard University this fall as a research scientist in human-centered AI, successfully defended her dissertation in May — with a class of middle school students from Brooklyn in attendance. Her work has focused on designing and evaluating digital mental health technologies for cultural responsiveness. In addition to designing an evidence-based mental health app alongside underrepresented university students, another project she has worked on is a WhatsApp chat for South African families to assess children’s social and emotional well-being. This work included a trip to Cape Town to capture insights from home visitors who do community work around early childhood development.
“What’s important throughout is to understand how to design for racial and ethnic minority populations when it comes to digital mental health technology,” she says. “And with that, of course, you need more designers and researchers from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds in this space.”
Opening the Doors of Opportunity
In celebrating this historic first for UCI’s Department of Informatics, it’s also important to look to a future where such accomplishments are commonplace.
“It is an amazing milestone,” says Johnson, “but when we look at the institution, it took how many years?” Twenty-one. And this wasn’t a milestone Johnson set out to achieve. While at Vanderbilt, her mentor was Dr. Jedidah Isler, the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Yale University. “Understanding her journey through our conversations, I didn’t want to be the first of anything, because at a glance it seems amazing, but it definitely comes with a lot of turbulence,” says Johnson. “But sometimes it can open the doors to more.”
In fact, it was a conversation with Johnson during Grad Visit Day that made Williams feel comfortable about wanting to come to UCI. “I learned that Jazette went to the same church that my mom got married in, and [I thought], ‘Wow! What are the odds of me coming all the way across country and meeting someone who had home ties?’” It made her feel at ease.
“Once me and Lizzy [Elizabeth Ankrah] saw Jazette, we felt better about our decision to attend UCI,” she explains. “Then, when you have other Black students come to Visit Day and they see us, they feel more comfortable.”
Both Johnson and Williams hope this milestone achievement helps ICS foster greater recruitment and retention of Black students and faculty in the future.
“As with all of my students, I have learned as much from them as they have from me. What makes these two even more special, though, is the way that I have seen them transform our program and department,” says Gillian Hayes, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate Division, who advised Johnson and Williams. “They are both incredible contributors to department and campus culture, and they have served as wonderful mentors. I am so proud of their accomplishments, and I cannot wait to see what they do next.”
Empowering Black Girls in STEM
With their accomplishments serving as a roadmap, Johnson and Williams hope to inspire other young Black girls in STEM.
“You are capable of achieving great things,” says Johnson, offering words of encouragement to those striving to follow in her footsteps. “It’s important to set high standards for yourself, but it’s equally important to be kind to yourself and practice self-care.” Such self-care includes giving yourself some grace when struggling academically, especially in math or science courses.
“Your GPA doesn’t define you,” explains Williams. “There’s always a way. If you really want this career, you can have it. I knew in my heart that I had the skills to be in this field.” Williams advises undergraduate students to build leadership skills by joining different organizations (she served as president of a National Society of Black Engineers chapter) and to gain hands-on experience by attending hackathons and design challenges. “I was able to build my portfolio to show my designs and show that I know how to build technology.”
Johnson seconds that advice. “I will always stand for the C students,” she says. “As a C student myself earlier in my academic career, I needed people to see past my grades and focus on what I could do, rather than on what they felt my grades showed them.” So to anyone out there doubting themselves, she says, “Embrace the challenges and just do it!” Join Dr. Jazette Johnson and Dr. Lucretia Williams in bringing your own motivations and perspectives to help address real-world problems through research and novel tech development. “It’s much easier said than done but muster up the determination to push through with a mix of tears, joy and even stress,” says Johnson. “Stay focused, have fun and always remember your why.”
— Shani Murray