She was driving home from her job at the University of South Florida, she had just picked up her 4-year-old son from preschool, when her cell phone rang.
Long distance. "Yes, this is Ashanti Johnson Pyrtle."
An official was calling from the National Science Foundation. They needed her to fill out some paperwork. Would she be able to pass a background check?
"A background check?" asked Johnson, 39. (She prefers her maiden name.)
Yes. As soon as possible, the official told her. The president wants to meet you.
She thanked God. She thanked her parents. She thanked her professors and students.
And Jacques Cousteau.
• • •
Johnson grew up in Dallas, a half-day's drive from the beach. She was 10 when she first lost herself in Jacques Cousteau's TV show about his underwater explorations. She saw herself sinking beneath the swirling seaweed, floating with fluorescent fish, documenting it all for science.
"The ocean was like this undiscovered world, right here on our planet," Johnson said. "Under water, it seemed, there were no boundaries."
In high school, she volunteered to clean fish tanks at the Dallas aquarium. She tutored her classmates in math and science, took them on tours of her watery world.
She dreamed of earning a Ph.D. in marine science, of becoming the next Jacques Cousteau.
She never dreamed she would meet the president.
"I didn't dare dream that big."
• • •
When Johnson enrolled at Texas A&M University at Galveston in 1989, there were 800 students — and eight African-Americans. Her classmates elected her student body president.
Graduate school was more difficult. On the bigger, main campus at Texas A&M, none of the students in Johnson's science classes looked like her. There were no minority professors.
"The only person I could relate to was my female adviser," Johnson said. "She had started studying oceanography when they didn't even want women on ships."
After receiving her doctorate in 1999, Johnson worked for Exxon and Texas Instruments. In 2003, she moved to Tampa Bay to become an assistant professor in USF's College of Marine Science.
She teaches graduate classes like Aquatic Radio Geochemistry and publishes papers in Marine Pollution Bulletin. She studies our impact on the environment by looking at deposits of radionuclides in sediment. It's like pushing a straw into mud, she explained — you can see where atmospheric fallout was deposited from nuclear events like the accident at Three Mile Island or Chernobyl.
"The idea, eventually, is to work with regulatory agencies to get involved with cleaning up these sites," Johnson said. She has sampled sediment from Savannah to Puerto Rico, on ancient Indian mounds and Navy testing grounds. Most of her field work, she said, involves trekking through mud.
"I only go out about four times a year now," she said. But that's okay. She would rather be in her office talking to students.
Over the years, she said, her love for the world beneath the water morphed into a love for another unknown world: the future. Her favorite part of being a professor "is hearing the students' dreams," she said.
President Barack Obama did not want to thank Johnson for her science. He wanted to honor her for her service to students.
He chose her as one of 100 educators throughout the country to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching — and as one of 20 honored with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. Three other Floridians attended the White House ceremony. She was the only Tampa Bay area recipient.
• • •
On Jan. 6, she called her USF office from the White House. The ceremony was going to be shown live on C-SPAN. Her graduate students watched Obama shake her hand.
They heard him talk about his goal to move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement. They listened to him praise their professor, and talk about the difference she and the other educators were making.
They knew about Johnson's research and work ethic and teaching. They also knew about other secrets of her success: that old love seat across from her desk. The candy bowl. Mentoring means having somewhere you want to hang out.
"I have a huge office in an old building with lots of space for students to sprawl," Johnson said. She always leaves her door open. They come for Jolly Ranchers and conversation. Often, they bring their friends.
In 2003, Johnson received a grant from NASA to start a mentoring program. Since then, her group has helped more than 175 science students make resumes, find jobs and connect with other minority scientists. Johnson also has brought USF more than $5 million in scholarship funds.
"If we want to improve our students' achievement in science and math, we need to have our teachers earning math and science degrees — not studying education," she said.
She told officials with the Department of Education the same thing last week, when she met with them across the street from the White House.
"And we need to reward people who teach well," she said. "In India and China, salaries for science teachers are the same as they are for scientists. We need to invest more in our future."
• • •
As wonderful as it was meeting the president, the best part of the trip came afterward, Johnson said.
An official from the National Science Foundation showed her the nomination packet. A former mentor had suggested her for the award. Some of her students had written letters.
"One was from this young woman I had worked with while she was in graduate school. She was a wonderful student, but she was so worried about interviewing for a job," Johnson said. She took the student out to lunch, put her through a mock interview.
That student is now teaching at Cornell University. She wrote the presidential committee she would never be there if it hadn't been for her mentor, professor Johnson. Johnson wiped her eyes.
With scientific research, you know what you're looking for — you can measure the results.
But with teaching, the end is murkier. You might never know how you influenced someone.
Unless they tell you. Or the president invites you over.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.