Alicia Johnson

Graduate student Alicia Johnson poses for a portrait inside the lab she works in at the Beadle Center on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Johnson studies biochemistry.

Alicia Johnson said pursuing a biochemistry doctorate as an African-American woman makes her feel like she’s living under a magnifying glass with the added pressure from being a minority.

“Historically, the [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] field has not always been open to women or people of color,” she said. “It’s difficult, but it’s important to recognize you’re stepping into breaking this cycle of something that’s not representing you.”

Johnson, who became a University of Nebraska-Lincoln doctoral candidate in fall 2017, originally planned to attend medical school but wanted to do more than just diagnose patients.

“Every job in the field is important,” she said. “But I didn’t want to be the one discussing the problem. I wanted to be the one fixing them.”

With this new outlook and an interest in neurological diseases, Johnson dedicated her five-year program to studying the metabolic changes that occur in drug-resistant epilepsy by implementing changes in diet.

“It’s really interesting phenomena and a lot of people don’t know how it works,” she said. “In a normal brain, your neurons are timed correctly, but in someone with epilepsy, those get disrupted and the signals go all at once. My goal is to find what diets can affect positive change.”

Johnson, who works as a graduate research assistant, found her way to UNL through a 2016 summer research opportunity and was pleasantly surprised by the various opportunities that were available to her.

“My department is incredibly supportive of what I choose,” she said. “With my advisor, I can do more things like pursue interdisciplinary studies, which other colleges normally don’t allow.”

Rebecca Duffy, a freshman chemistry major, echoed Johnson’s feelings. She said the main reason she chose UNL was for the diversity, not only in the programs offered but in the student body and professors.

“Being from small town Nebraska, it’s rare to see yourself as a young woman in the science field,” Duffy said. “So when I visited campus, I couldn’t believe how many women were studying complex sciences here. It was very inspiring.”

Johnson and Duffy said they hope the future for women in STEM is one that will continue to diversify and expand.

Steve Goddard, the interim vice chancellor for research and economic development at UNL, said UNL’s partnership with the Association for Women in Science is one way the university is working toward that future.

In May 2017, the university announced it would partner with the association, which is the United States’ largest multidisciplinary organization for women in STEM, according to its website.

“The Association for Women in Science works with institutions like ours to create a culture that not only values and respects all people but also encourages risk taking and open mindedness,” Goddard said.

Johnson said she is proud to be in STEM, and because of the growing diversity she sees in her field, she is hopeful people will be aware that despite their differences, they’re all linked together.

“There’s caveats to everything,” she said. “I think people think we work in silos, but truthfully, we’re all so interconnected.”