Skip to content

Charting a New Course: Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

This profile is part of our series celebrating contemporary Black geoscientists in honor of Black History Month. Learn more here.

Dr. Johnson was trained as a marine biologist, but in the years since she completed her PhD work at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, she has become an environmental leader who transcends the bounds of scientific research, policy consultant, science communicator, and activist. She is a leading advocate for intersectionality in environmental activism, recognizing that environmental pollution and climate change are human problems that affect human communities, with disproportionate impacts on marginalized groups such as people of color. As she recently told Outside Magazine, “My love of nature and humanity drive my work. It’s not some abstract interest in policy or science”.

Johnson has brought a consciousness of human impacts into environmental research from the start. She completed her undergraduate work at Harvard University in Environmental Science and Public Policy in 2002. Her PhD work, completed in 2011, combined research on the ecology of coral reefs with research on the social and economic factors that influence the perceptions of reef management strategies held by fishers and other stakeholders on two Caribbean islands. In the traditional, oceanographic side of her work, she tested the effectiveness of a type of fishing trap for reducing bycatch (bycatch means fish that get caught in traps that the fishermen weren’t intending on catching, such as juveniles or nontarget species). Johnson then conducted interviews with local fishermen and divers about their perceptions of coral reef health and potential fishing/diving regulations proposed to mitigate reef damage. Having access to both data on the environmental reality and the human economic and social reality allowed her to propose policy solutions that were in touch with both realities.

Today, Johnson lives and works in her native New York City as a policy consultant. She is the founder and CEO of the organization Ocean Collectiv, which supports ocean conservation groups. She also is a leading advocate for urban oceanography, and co-founded the Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank to generate policies that would allow coastal cities to be leaders in climate change mitigation and adaptation. In all her work, she promotes the oceans as a locus not just of environmental harm, but also a source of solutions. Troubled that the Green New Deal proposed by congressional Democrats said little about the oceans, she co-authored a Blue New Deal for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. Besides consulting on policy, Johnson is also a writer and podcaster. You can learn more about her current projects at her website. You can also listen to a conversation between Johnson and WHOI scientist Dr. Jeff Donnelly on the future of coastal cities here.


Read more of Through the Porthole Issue #1

Learn more about Through the Porthole

Learn more about the MIT-WHOI Joint Program