Adriel D. Johnson Sr., 52, Helped Minority Students Pursue Careers in Science

February 14, 2010

Adriel D. Johnson Sr., 52, an associate professor of biological sciences who was one of three people killed on Friday in a shooting at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, worked in the areas of cell biology and nutritional physiology. He was hired at Huntsville in 1989 from North Carolina State University and had a doctorate in biology.

Colleagues this weekend recalled Mr. Johnson as someone who was acutely interested in his students and devoted much of his time to promoting science and mathematics interest among minority students.

The father of two sons, he volunteered with the local Boy Scouts, teaching them about science and nature, and had recently been recognized as a top volunteer Scout leader.

His own youthful experience in a scouting program called Medical Explorers may have helped sharpen his interest in a career in science. A 1976 article in Ebony magazine about Explorer Post 72 at the Tuskegee VA Hospital, in his hometown, mentions him as a program success story. He was then a freshman biology major at Washington University in St. Louis.

Mr. Johnson has been widely recognized for his support of black students interested in pursuing careers in science, engineering, and mathematics.

He directed the campus chapter of the Alabama Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation. His wife, Jacqueline U. Johnson, a veterinarian who teaches at Alabama A&M University, was a principal investigator for the alliance, which is backed by the National Science Foundation.

Louis Dale, vice president for equity and diversity at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, worked with Mr. Johnson for 19 years on various programs in Alabama designed to encourage minority students to pursue science and math careers.

"He loved students," Mr. Dale said. "I think he cared more about students than research" and would sometimes write papers with undergraduates.

Mr. Dale said Mr. Johnson would often take students with him to conferences and once brought one of his sons, then a young high-school student, to make a presentation at a statewide meeting of colleagues promoting science education.

'A Teacher of Rare Skill'

W. James Croom, a professor of comparative nutrition and physiology at North Carolina State University who was one of Mr. Johnson's doctoral advisers in the late 1980s, also noted Mr. Johnson's particular passion for teaching undergraduates. "I knew from the moment I first saw him as a TA at North Carolina State that he was a teacher of rare skill," said Mr. Croom.

At the time, another graduate student, the woman who would become Mr. Johnson's wife, was also at North Carolina State. "They met in my departmental library," said Mr. Croom, who mentioned that he spent part of the last two days looking at old photographs that he and his wife have of the Johnsons and their first son, Adriel Jr., who was born in Raleigh in 1988.

The former adviser described Mr. Johnson as someone who was serious yet had "a terrific sense of humor" and did not take himself overly seriously.

Bruce W. Stallsmith, an assistant professor of biology at Huntsville, said that his late colleague had spent much of his time as a mentor and adviser to students. "With many of them, he made sure they were attending class on a regular basis, taking the right classes in the right order, and working with them to prepare themselves for life after graduation," he said.

Mr. Johnson's 19 years of work with outreach organizations in Alabama made him well known to hundreds of minority students who have since pursued degrees and careers in science. "Right now I'm getting a lot of phone calls from students all the way back," said Overtoun M. Jenda, a mathematics professor and administrator at Auburn University who worked with Mr. Johnson on the Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate.

Mr. Jenda said the Huntsville professor's tips on how to apply to graduate school and prepare for the Graduate Record Examinations were regular features of the annual meetings that brought students and professors together from around the state.

He was both cordial and somewhat formal, said Mr. Jenda, who knew Mr. Johnson for 17 years. Around the students, "he always wanted to make sure he was professional," added Mr. Jenda. "I think he did that by example."

Mr. Johnson received bachelor's and master's degrees from Washington University, Tennessee Technological University, and the University of Alabama at Huntsville, as well as a doctorate from North Carolina State University.

His Web site lists his research interests as including cellular mechanisms regulating digestive function and neural control of pancreatic secretions in domestic animals.