Igniting the next generation of women leaders in STEM

23 Nov 2023

Dr Patrice S Johnson. Image: Project Scientist

Dr Patrice S Johnson discusses her work in tackling educational inequities, her ambitious plans for Project Scientist and the importance of creating a safe space for authenticity.

Dr Patrice S Johnson is the CEO and president of Project Scientist, a non-profit that aims to bring STEM education to underserved and marginalised girls.

The organisation highlights the importance of possessing strong science, technology, engineering and maths – STEM – skills, along with the addition of the arts (STEAM). The US organisation offers summer and after-school programmes for children, and partners with various schools, non-profits and STEM companies.

“I can’t wait for us to fully integrate the arts into STEM education,” Johnson said. “The arts serve as the glue that ignites creativity to serve other aspects of STEM.”

Johnson took the reins of the organisation in August, after being the chief programs officer for Black Girls Code – which focuses on engaging women of colour with computer programming education to nurture their tech careers.

She has held various positions over the years and was an elected official at 21, becoming a councilwoman in the city of Muskegon Heights in 2011. Johnson said she was the youngest elected official in her community, which prompted people to ask her what it was like.

“What I conclude is, it’s who I am, I am a leader, I strive to empower other people and just because my title changes, who I am as a person does not,” Johnson said. “So, I was a leader when I was a vice-president at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, I was a leader when I was a chief programs officer and I remain a leader as a president and CEO.”

Boosting STEM education

Project Scientist claims to have served more than 20,000 girls across the US and Mexico, while training 375 teachers to deliver its programmes. Johnson described her motivation for leading this organisation.

“When I imagine the impact that Project Scientist will have – I think of the next scientific breakthrough, the cure for cancer and the future Nobel Prize winner being the girls who are in our programme today,” Johnson said. “We have the ability to ignite a generation of women leaders who can quite literally create the change we need in STEM and beyond.”

Johnson has been leading Project Scientist for a short while, but has ambitious plans for the the non-profit.

“Our team has grown accustomed to me saying ‘double’, let’s simply double our impact in the next three years, double the amount of girls, teachers and families we serve,” Johnson said. “What that looks like is having a presence in 12 major US cities and two to three global communities serving at least 10,000 girls a year.”

Johnson has a lot of experience leading various non-profit organisations but some challenges lay ahead, as the organisation aims to foster equitable education not only from a gender perspective but “also a class and racial standpoint”.

“In Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol wrote that systemic inequalities perpetuate educational inequity especially in impoverished communities,” Johnson said. “Schools across the country must implore a holistic approach that focuses on the needs of the whole child so that we can sufficiently educate our children in a way that inspires their creativity and fosters confidence in STEM.

“Doing so secures our future and allows us to compete globally. We can’t yet get to this approach without first ensuring that no matter where a child grows up they receive high-quality education.”


Johnson spoke about the importance of authenticity, in terms of her own leadership style and in getting the best out of her staff. She was told by her godfather that “even though I was very skilled, it wasn’t my skills that made me phenomenal, rather it was my presence”.

“That helped me to relinquish this idea of perfectionism and just be who I am,” Johnson said. “I believe in creating a safe space for each team member to be their authentic selves, to not be afraid to fail and to lead at every level of the organisation.”

To keep track of her ambitions, Johnson said she has been using the Goal Digger Planner by MIGoals for the past three years – a product that she described as “magical”.

“It helps me to intersect my personal and professional tasks throughout the week,” she said. “I highly recommend this planner as it takes a big picture goal into measurable tasks week over week.”

Johnson is focused on taking Project Scientist to its next level and spoke highly of the organisation, saying it is “truly different in the level of quality” compared to other non-profits she has seen thrive over the years. Outside of this work, she has other ambitious personal goals in mind too.

“I’d like to write a NYT bestseller that is turned into a movie series – watch out JK Rowling.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic