Dr. Ashanti Johnson received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from President Barack Obama on Jan. 5 at the White House.

Johnson is the executive director of the Institute for Broadening Participation, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging students to pursue studies in the sciences. IBP, with its headquarters in Damariscotta, is supported primarily by grant funding from the National Science Foundation and NASA.

As an African-American girl growing up in Dallas, Texas, Johnson wanted to be like Jacques Cousteau.

“My first exposure [to oceanography] was watching him on TV,” said Johnson, 39. “The ocean for me represented the unknown … I think because it was so vast and diverse.”

But as she pursued an education in oceanography, Johnson realized her field of study wasn’t so diverse. When she enrolled at Texas A & M University at Galveston, there were only eight black people at the university known for marine studies. Johnson became the first African-American to receive a degree in marine science. The view wasn’t much different at Texas A & M’s main campus, where she became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in oceanography.

“To some extent, my community [of scientists] has not done the greatest job in letting the public know about career opportunities in earth system sciences. If you’re smart, you’re told you can be a doctor or lawyer … but people don’t know what a geologist or oceanographer does,” said Johnson.

As a faculty member at Georgia Tech and University of South Florida in chemical oceanography, Johnson created and expanded the Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success in Earth System Science initiative. Since its inception, MS PHDS has helped more than 175 minority and first-generation college students majoring in earth system science find jobs and network with other minority scientists. Johnson said the program also gives students who often feel isolated in their respective majors a much-needed support system.

“They call it the MS PHDS family. So once you’re adopted into it, you’re part of the family for life,” said Johnson.

Johnson said she’s just getting started. Her hope is to make MS PHDS a model program for other majors like math and physics, perhaps making even more fields where groups of students are underrepresented as colorful as the deep blue sea.

IBP also works with several other fellowship and internship programs at the National Science Foundation that support students pursuing undergraduate and graduate careers in the sciences. As part of this work IBP hosts a family of Web sites with these resources at pathwaystoscience.org.