Amber Johnson received her first computer at 4 years old.
At 30, she’s the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in computer science at Purdue.
She started coding with Microsoft Disk Operating System to boot up her computer, she said. She tinkered with her Nintendo 64 when it stopped working. She would program her TI-84 calculator in high school. In the smallest ways, she was able to explore her interest in technology and computers.
“I’ve always been really into gadgets, figuring things out, taking things apart. I was self-taught,” said Johnson, who graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College for her undergrad degree in computer science and received her master's from Jackson State.
Now Johnson will be a software engineer for Northrup Grumman, a leading aerospace and defense technology company.
According to Purdue’s graduate school enrollment summary for 2019, African-Americans make up only 5.4% of graduate students. In general, black students make up a small percentage — 3.22% as of 2016 — of students at Purdue.
“I came from three historically black colleges and universities. Coming to Purdue, I had to learn to understand the community around me,” Johnson said. “Learning to understand the community (black) students are in is a space that was not intentionally created for them but extended to them. It need to be filled with mentors and peers.”
Johnson was also an instructor for Girls Who Code and Black Girls Rock Tech. Her mentorship in helping her peers extended into the Black Graduate Students Organization, which allows black grad students to help and support each other in pursuing their graduate education.
Regarding being the first African-American female doctoral student to graduate from Purdue, Johnson is taking it all in stride.
“Publicity is publicity. I don’t look the stereotypical computer scientist," she said. "You don’t find many black women in this academic space. This is what computer science can look like.”