USM Honors Forum to host astrophysicist

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The Honors Forum’s latest featured speaker is astronomer John Asher Johnson, who will speak at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 20 at Bennett Auditorium.

The Honors Forum has been a Southern Miss tradition for more than 40 years according to Andrew P. Haley, the director of the Honor’s Forum.

“Selecting speakers is a huge responsibility because the University Forum is one of the oldest speaker series in Mississippi,” Haley said.

Haley takes feedback from both faculty and students to bring a variety of voices and perspectives to the forum. Johnson was recommended by a faculty member, and Haley believes that Johnson’s experience is remarkable.

Johnson received his Bachelors of Science degree in physics from the University of Missouri-Rolla and his Masters and Doctorate degrees from The University of California, Berkeley. He is also credited for discovering three of the smallest planets on record around red dwarf stars.

Johnson is now a professor at Harvard University, home of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics where Johnson is also a faculty member. The CfA houses about 300 Smithsonian and Harvard scientists who study a branch of astrophysics.

Since beginning at Harvard, Johnson has partnered with another professor to create the Banneker and Aztlán Institute, a summer program that brings African-American and Latino-American high school students to Cambridge, Massachusetts each year to learn about astrophysics.

The Banneker and Aztlan Institute spends 10 weeks of every summer researching alongside faculty and postdoctoral advisors to complete a long-term project. Students also work on advanced astronomical calculations and complete a final presentation.

The participants not only learn about astrophysics, but they also take an in-depth look into literature related to social and racial justice in order to arm students with critical information and confidence as they enter the STEM field.

The STEM fields are notorious for being dominated by a white male majority. In a study conducted by the National Science Foundation in 2017, it was determined that white men still held a little over half of the jobs in STEM fields. On the other hand, Hispanic men made up four percent while black men accounted for three percent of jobs. Johnson said he plans to address these issues in his Forum speech.

“I’m very excited about addressing a large audience of people from a wide range of backgrounds and telling them the story of how I got to where I am and what I’m doing to improve the way we identify and foster talent in STEM,” Johnson said.