Toni Johnson Awarded the James Bruce Llewelyn Fellowship

August 17, 2022

Howard University graduate starts Biology Ph.D. to study how people and plants connect.

Toni Johnson — Biology (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)
Toni Johnson (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

Toni Johnson says she wants to work where the lives of people and plants come together. A recent graduate of Howard University who hails from St. Louis, she begins her doctoral studies in the Graduate Center Biology program’s Plant Sciences subprogram this month. Johnson was awarded the James Bruce Llewelyn Fellowship in March.  

She arrives with a bachelor’s degree in biology. “I'm really interested in phytochemistry and the intersection of people and plants,” she said. “So I'm looking at that intersection as it relates to agriculture and traditional medicine.” 

Her love of nature was apparent at a young age, she said. “Every summer, I helped my mom outside in her garden,” said Johnson. “I've always loved plants and nature, and being outside. And I really got into climate change in high school.”

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Biology

Being a student at a historically Black university was a pivotal experience for her. “Seeing people that looked like me in a field that I hadn't fully decided whether or not I belonged in yet was exciting,” she said, speaking of biology. “I wasn’t sure that was something I could do. But seeing some really great professors thriving, just being Black and excellent, solidified it for me.” 

Her decision to enroll at the Graduate Center was partly due to its strong ties to other institutions in the city. “I liked the opportunity for outreach, especially at the New York Botanical Garden,” Johnson said, pointing to NYBG’s longtime partnership with the Plant Sciences subprogram. “It seems like a good idea to have the opportunity to spread myself out and meet as many people as possible.” 

Johnson says she’d like to mentor students like herself one day. “Especially students of color,” she said. “I want to be that person who helped me on my journey.” 

Each year, the James Bruce Llewelyn Fellowship for Minority Students is awarded to an African American doctoral student entering a field of science. The fellowship is named in honor of James Bruce Llewelyn, a Harlem native and graduate of The City College of New York, who became one of the most successful African American entrepreneurs in U.S. history. 

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