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Black History Month
2022 Honoree

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Joseph Johnson

Joseph Johnson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

University of Michigan

Where are you from?

Akron, Ohio


Please describe an experience (or 2) that helped you discover/ cultivate your interest in the mathematical sciences.

I don’t think that there was a “moment” where I discovered my interest in mathematics. Honestly, I have been interested in math since I was young. There is a story that my mom tells all the time: I was around five years old, and my mother was doing a grocery trip and as she was approaching the cashier, I said the amount she owed (apparently to the decimal, maybe an exaggeration?). 

There was a moment where I finally felt a little recognized though. My school system was predominately white and although I dominated all my math courses, I was never put into the “advanced” track—two facts that I highly believe are quite related. This meant that I had to start high school in Algebra 1B (the lower track), instead of Algebra 2A (the highest track).

My second semester of my freshman year, I was in Geometry B. Every class, I completed any work assigned and then started blankly into space. Finally, my teacher, asked me about it. When she found out that I was just smashing everything she asked me “What are you doing here?”, surprised that the school would even make me take this class. She promptly put me into Geometry A (the advanced version), being finally recognized as someone with talent.


What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your career in the mathematical sciences?

There are a couple of accomplishments that I am proud of. First, I honestly think that just being where I am at, black person with a PhD, with a couple of publications, doing a postdoc, with a number of interviews for a tenure-track position with various institutions. I am basically where I wanted to be, when I thought about where was going be ten years ago.

Second, although I was underestimated by my school, I did win the math award at my school by the end of high school. So, I feel

Finally, any time I was able to inspire students to believe that they too can do math is a massive achievement to me. I think of the time when I was a Master’s student and I was teaching Intermediate Algebra and a student found me after the semester ended and basically told me that I reinvigorated him and spurred him on to do well in the course.


What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your personal life?

Well, of course, marrying my wife is definitely up there. I am glad to be surviving through this ongoing pandemic. Finally, I think I am just proud to be at a point where I really like who I am and what I stand for.


Please share some words of wisdom/inspiration.

I know there are many systemic hurdles that many have to leap over, but just know that resistance doesn’t mean that you don’t have a place in mathematics (or whatever field you want to study). 

There is a place for you here, you just need to find sector of mathematics that inspires you and a great social group that can support your goals. And if you can’t find it right now, just know that I and (many, many others) are working to create a space that where everyone from all backgrounds can thrive.