Student Highlight: Louis Keyamo Johnson

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Louis Keyamo Johnson is currently a Post-Baccalaureate at the Astronomy Department at Princeton University. He received his Bachelor’s degree from University of the Pacific with a double major in Physics and Applied Mathematics. Leading to his current position at Princeton he has conducted several research projects covering various subfields such as cosmology, stellar science, and galaxy evolution. Even though his astronomy career is just starting, he has very high ambitions of becoming a well-established researcher. He has already tried to embark on this journey by networking and collaborating with various Astronomers in the community to help him make that dream a reality. Outside of Astronomy, Louis has strong passions for mentoring, community outreach, activism, music, and learning new things about the world around him. 
Jorge: Congratulations on your offer to attend Princeton’s Post-baccalaureate Program. What was your reaction when you first learned that you had been selected?
Louis: Thank you, Jorge. My initial reaction was excitement. I was very happy to have the opportunity to join the Princeton community and further my advancement in the field. I reflected on how I felt being denied from all the schools I applied to for undergrad. I remembered the goal I then set for myself to earn acceptance into any program I wanted to attend for grad school. Seeing that hard work pay off and manifest in reality was a surreal moment. 
Jorge: Please tell me more about yourself. What’s your story?
Louis: Hmmm, that’s a really complex question… I see myself as constantly growing, changing, adapting. I would like to rephrase that question to what’s my story thus far. My story begins as a five year old boy thinking about concepts of forever, asking my mom so many questions all of the time. Listening to my father tell me his views of the world always lead me to think of more questions to ask. I have always been a curious person and maybe one day that may come back to bite me, but for now it has helped me discover so many elements about the world around me and myself too. My story is still not yet defined because I am still in the process of trying to figure out my story. In short, I see myself as a Naruto or Goku/Gohan, someone newly coming into my full potential. 
Jorge: You have substantial research experience for someone your age. Can you share a few highlights from each of your experiences at the various REU programs you have attended?
Louis: Thank you, thank you. My first official research project was in Trieste, Italy. Being in Italy, and having to overcome language barriers, I quickly learned that communication is the key to success. My advisor was hands off which forced me to work independently and use resources outside of her. My second research project was at Harvard as a SAO REU summer intern. At Harvard, I learned the value and importance of having an inclusive environment when being a productive researcher. I also gained more coding skills and was able to learn python. My next research project at Harvard again, but as a member of the Banneker & Aztlán Institute. From this experience, I learned about multidimensional excellence from each member core or affiliate, in the program. I also learned how to make my research relatable to everyone through use of analogies.   
Jorge: What do you mean by ‘multidimensional excellence’? Can you please elaborate?
Louis: Multidimensional excellence is a concept I learned from Prof. John Johnson that states that intelligence is not based on one single attribute, such as a test scores, grades, research project, etc. Instead, intelligence is based on the compilation of each attribute an individual has. Some people may be better at test taking, some may be better at research, but the truth is that each person’s axis of excellence doesn’t make either of them better than the other. We are all intelligent! We just have to find our various axes of intelligence.
Jorge: In addition to your substantial research dossier, you have given talks at places like MIT, Harvard and Princeton! Before even finishing college? What was that like?
Louis: I felt extremely honored and humbled to be able to speak to senior researchers and tenured professors on my findings and research experiences at schools with such a high reputation. Many thanks go to several amazing professors and scientists like Dr. Lia CorralesProf. Jenny Greene, the directors of the Harvard SAO program, and of course the Banneker and Aztlán Institute, for giving me the opportunity to grow as a scientist by inviting me to each of those institutions. Giving those talks in front of those large audiences helped me to strengthen my confidence as a scientist. I gained the ability to use scientific language to describe my research projects to other scientist and forced me to learn how to communicate thoroughly and effectively. 
Jorge: In your opinion, what qualities makes you and your work so unique and compelling?
Louis: My ability to make connections by using analogies and making the material relatable to me and others, my confidence, my diligence, and my honesty.  I think the last three require further explanation. The saying goes “ignorance is bliss,” and as I get older I understand why. For example, let’s say we are at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting and there is a well-renowned scientist nearby. My confidence allows me to see them as an approachable person while someone else may be hesitant or afraid to speak to them. I will be able to overcome any mental barriers and go have a conversation with them. My confidence, paired together with my diligence allows me to get what I strive for without fear because I do not have an anticipated outcome in my head. My honesty helps me to be true with myself to become a genuine person. I am not pretending to be courageous or “cool,” I am just confident and diligent enough to achieve my goals by any means, even if those means may seem impossible or unrealistic to others people’s realities.

Jorge: Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy?
: If you would have asked me this question a few years ago, my ignorance/ego would have prompted me to answer with “No one inspired me, I inspired myself.” It would have been guided by my lack of exposure at the time to what it meant to be “successful.” At the time, my inspiration for pursuing astronomy was that I saw astronomy as my way out of the harsh realities of growing up in Vallejo, CA. Today, with the help of the Banneker and Aztlán Institute, I see Astronomy as something that is natural to my people and our culture. Benjamin Banneker, one of the first Astronomers in America, comes from West Africa where astronomy was not only used to understand the cosmos, but used as a way of life. If you extend past West Africa and pinpoint anywhere on the map where a pyramid can be found, you’ll find it aligns with  a star system in the sky. If you study indigenous cultures such as the Dogon civilization, you’ll find that they knew about Sirius A and B, approximately 400 years prior to American astronomers development of a telescope sensitive enough to detect that Sirius was a multi-star system. So answering your question, my inspiration goes further and deeper than mere curiosity, but is ancestral and possibly embedded in my genetics.
Jorge: I am sure your unique path will lead to a very unique and interesting career! What are you plans after this position?
: Take over the world… ahaha, just kidding! But I would like to change the world. My direct goals after my position as post-baccalaureate are to pursue my PhD. I am really trying to put myself in a position to be able to conduct my own research. Through my experience as a researcher and inherently being curious, I am constantly thinking about problems, questions, etc. Through that process, I have been able to come up with ideas on how to solve or answer these questions, but since I am not a professional I do not have the resources to pursue these endeavors. At this point, the only way I know how to do this is to go get my PhD. Once I obtain my PhD, I would like to pursue a “Cultural Astronomy” research project, a term I came across by reading a book called African Cultural Astronomy by Jarita Holbrook, Johnson Urama, and R. Thebe Medupe[1]. Changing the world will come after.
Jorge: Allow me to ask a bit more about your path so far. What challenges or obstacles have you faced in pursuing your interests in astronomy? How have you overcome them?
Louis: On this path I have faced a lot of external obstacles: racism, microaggressions, and financial hardships to name a few. But the biggest obstacle I’ve faced was finding the confidence to believe in myself. By believing in myself and only focusing on those who believe in me, I now have the ability to eliminate all those other obstacles. In the moments where I am able to feel confident and supported, all external things become background noise and I’m able to focus on my immediate goals. I imagine it’s like basketball players when they’re shooting free throws; the crowd is cheering, the pressure to succeed is at an all time high, but the players must block out the background noise and
center themselves to focus on the goal at hand. Similar to the basketball player shooting the free throw who can’t win without teammates. I also have a very strong support network composed of family, friends, professors, and colleagues who are constantly inspiring and encouraging me along the way. This growing network is essential to my progress. I know there will always be hardship moving forward, but Newton’s third law states “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” so if my actions are to be great there are going to be an equal magnitude of forces opposing my greatness,. With my support network being me, and the strength I have to believe in myself, I cannot lose.   
Jorge: I am glad you to mentioned systemic racism and its financial impact on our communities. We both know just how severely underrepresented Black people are in our field. I thank you for all your hard work! Now that you are at a more advanced position in your career, what ideas do you have to make astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community?
: Wow, that’s another complex question. A question that my friends and I have spent quite some time trying to answer. An idea that we’ve come up to make all STEM fields more equitable and inclusive, is to change the structure of education. Learning that science started with the greeks and ended with Einstein tells a one-dimensional, ½ truth. “Science” was happening simultaneously all over the world, so focusing on one particular culture, and normalizing their findings, doesn’t define all of “science”. If the structure of education redevelops, adds more cultural components/perspectives, and teaches about the sciences found in all cultures, I think it will have two major effects: (1) it will increase the representation of minoritized people who may or may not identify with the new cultures that will be introduced to the field, and (2) it will advance the field in a never before seen way that extends beyond white Euro-centric cultural perspective.
Jorge: What advice would you give to other people with a similar background to your who might be interested in following your path?
Louis: This path is not easy, this path is not always fun, but this path can be rewarding.  If you want something, go for it. Go for it knowing that you will be tested every step of the way, but knowing also that you are not alone. Find others who are like-minded and join/create a family. Stay true to yourself, to those who you love, and the one above (or the universe, depending on what you believe). 
Jorge: Now I would like to focus on an occasion where I was fortunate to witness, first hand, you sharing your wisdom with many of us. At the 2017 Winter AAS Meeting you read a speech after our Town Hall on Racism. Would you be willing to share it with us?
: I would be willing to share the speech, however, it was more of a freestyle than a speech. Before I went on stage, I wrote down a few keywords that I wanted to express to the community. The main point I wanted to convey was that we shouldn’t compete against one another, but complete one another. The main difference between compete and complete is the “l,”  I have defined that “l” as love. Having love to fuel our field and fuel one another creates a more productive and healthy environment. I also mentioned that, as a child, we are taught about the subtractive coloring model and in that model when all colors are removed, black is what remains. So, based on that understanding, I changed the notion of black holes to black whole as an analogy for the astronomy community. The light is a representation of white supremacy[2] and I believe that if we can all come together, and all of us accrete into the black whole, we can make a potential well so deep that not even light or white supremacy could exist. 
Jorge:  I recognize that an interview does not suffice to capture a full person. Do you have any final words for the reader?
Louis: Yes, I would like to shout out my Banneker Aztlán Institute family, my home institution UOP, my mentors in the astronomy community, my family and loved ones, and thank you for giving me this opportunity and all your support of my career so far. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
*Jorge Moreno is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Pomona College, and is currently the Chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy.
[1] African Cultural Astronomy: Current Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy research in Africa. Holbrook, Jarita, Medupe, R. Thebe, Urama, Johnson O. Springer Nature. ISBN 978-1-4020-6639-9
[2] white supremacy refers to a global system of power structures that privileges white people (E.g., hooks, bell (2000). Feminist theory: From margin to center. Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0-7453-1663-5).

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