How a young, Black marine biologist turned her imposter syndrome into real change
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, now an influential marine biologist, didn't always feel like she belonged.
The year was 2002.
Freshly graduated from Harvard University, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson had landed a coveted position as an environmental scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Johnson was the youngest member of her team by at least 15 years. She was the only Black employee. The only person without a graduate degree.
It's hard to imagine Johnson, now an influential marine biologist and leader of the conservation movement, feeling like an imposter. But she did.
"I didn't really know what I was doing," Johnson told Inverse in a conversation traversing her new book, her career, and the future of the planet.
"I was also there in the middle of the Bush administration with all these appointees who were doing horrible stuff for air quality, forests, and trying to tear everything apart. I was just like, I don't like this."
After years of studying environmental science and public policy in the classroom, but having limited experience watching the process unfold in real time, Johnson was shocked where the country's environmental policies were heading. It was a "total disaster," Johnson recalls.
"I wasn't trying to upend the system or cause trouble," Johnson says. "I wasn't a rabble-rouser by any means. I was like, 'What am I doing here?'"
Ultimately, Johnson wasn't able to push conservation strategies forward under the Bush administration. As she learned during that rookie year, "whoever holds the pen has the power."
Now, almost twenty years later, Johnson has made writing forward-thinking policy her modus operandi. Over the years, Johnson crafted federal ocean policy at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She co-founded the Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for the sustainable future of coastal cities, as well as Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for conservation solutions.
Johnson collaborated with the Elizabeth Warren campaign to write the Blue New Deal, a plan to protect and restore ocean habitats. With a new podcast How to Save a Planet and a new book All We Can Save, she is recruiting everyone to join this climate work — not just scientists and policy wonks.
Instead of fighting the past and the old structures that come with it, she's zeroed in on two essential questions: How are we building the future? And who can she team up with to build it?
In the Inverse series ROOKIE YEAR, leaders in STEM, business, and the arts offer a crash course in early adulthood.
Did you always know you wanted to be a marine biologist and climate policy expert?
I grew up in a working-class family in Brooklyn and basically, the only vacation we ever could afford to go on was this one summer when we went to Florida. I learned how to swim and went on a glass-bottom boat ride, and I was like, "Excuse me, how come no one told me about this before?" There's a whole other world under there and I was so curious. That was the moment I thought, "Oh, this can be your job — looking underwater and understanding what's happening." So of course I was like, "Well, I'm in. Sign me up."
I think the lesson here is just being stubborn enough to be like, "No really, I get it. I'm a Black girl from Brooklyn. You don't think it's gonna happen, but it's going to happen."
I actually never wanted to be a-day-to-day marine biologist counting copepods under a microscope in a lab all day, or pipetting things, or even scuba diving every day. I just was like, "I want to understand this well enough that I can change the rules of the game." Becoming a marine biologist was kind of a roundabout way to the work I'm doing now, that was always part of the plan.
I never thought I would be a professor or an academic. But I wanted to understand the ocean well enough to read everyone else's papers and figure out how we can use all that information to protect and restore the ocean for all the folks that rely on it. Being the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, a really big part of my upbringing was thinking about, how do we give back? How do we care for these communities that are so dependent on ocean ecosystems? Not just in terms of jobs and the economy, but also culture?
As I learned more and more about the climate crisis, I have shifted my work to the intersections of ocean and climate and the solutions that are at that nexus. And then, through this book, really thinking about: What is the leadership that we need for this moment? What is the full spectrum of climate solutions available to us? How do we accelerate the implementation of all those things?
I realize implementation is not a sexy word to anyone but me. But I'm like, "Make the plan. Implement the plan."
What was your first job that led to the career you have now?
My first job out of college was when I worked at the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] in Washington, D.C. in the policy office. I didn't think that I wanted to work in government, but I knew that I needed to understand how the government worked. What is the role of science in policymaking? How can I be helpful from the outside?
I was there for two years after college. I think the story of how I got that job is perhaps more interesting than the story of the job. I was an undergrad and I took this graduate school class at the Harvard Business School. The professor announced one day that there was someone from the EPA was going to come and do informational interviews.
"I want to understand this well enough that I can change the rules of the game."
I was one of two undergrads in the class. I didn't realize that of course, they're trying to hire someone who is about to get an MBA from Harvard — not some undergrad who's just making it up every day. But there is a value in naiveté if you don't bring your ego along. If someone in an interview is like, "Well, what would you do in this situation with environmental policy?" And you're like, "Well, let's reason this through together. I would do this. I would research this. I would call this person. I would bring these people together for a meeting."
Because I was so naive, I wasn't thinking in the same sort of formulaic way as I guess the other people were. So this guy [from the EPA] decided to give me a shot. The lesson there is just shoot your shot. Don't expect it to be a swish, but shoot your shot respectfully.
WHEN DID YOU REALIZE YOU WERE PURSUING A CAREER YOU LOVED? HOW DID YOU COME TO THAT REALIZATION?
To me, it's the periodic reevaluation of what am I good at? What is the work that needs doing? What would I actually enjoy doing? And that Venn diagram has led me to a bunch of different things.
One of the first ones was in graduate school where I was doing research, trying to figure out how we could make fishing more sustainable. Could I redesign fishing gear to make it catch exactly what they wanted, to not waste anything, and not damage habitats as much? And it turns out you can redesign fish traps to reduce bycatch of unwanted species by like 80 percent without hurting fishermen's incomes.
"The lesson there is just shoot your shot."
But then you realize that it's actually about people and not fish. The fish are doing everything right. It's the humans that are the problem. So I had to start to understand humans.
I sort of abandoned the scuba diving version of marine biology for the talking to fishermen version, and I spent hundreds of hours doing hundreds of interviews with fishermen and scuba instructors to understand what were they seeing. What were the problems? What were the solutions? What policies would they get behind? My favorite question was: If you could write the rules to manage the ocean, what would they be?
I learned the most amazing things and people had super good ideas. That was the moment where I was like, "Oh, this is a way I can be super helpful in connecting the dots." I can talk to fishermen and help translate the science and these community perspectives into policy. That was really incredible for me.
In the montage of your first year on the job, what song would play in the background?
This is not the correct answer, but this is the answer that is coming to my head. It is Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places." Because I kind of felt like an imposter. I was the youngest person in my office by at least 15 years. I was the only Black person. I was the only person without a graduate degree. I didn't really know what I was doing. I was also there in the middle of the Bush administration with all these appointees who were doing horrible stuff for air quality, forests, and trying to tear everything apart. I was just like, I don't like this.
I don't know why that song comes to mind. It goes "showed up in boots and ruined your black-tie affair" which is ironic because at the time I was dating a dude who wore cowboy boots every day and I got really into cowboy boots. So I was literally trying to wear them to work.
I wasn't trying to upend the system or cause trouble. I wasn't a rabble-rouser by any means. I was just kind of like, "What am I doing here?"
CAN YOU THINK OF A MOMENT IN YOUR EARLY CAREER WHERE YOU HAD TO INNOVATE?
I was the executive director of a nonprofit, who was doing all this work in the Caribbean. I had built the program from scratch and was really proud of what we were doing. But I realized that it just wasn't working — the relationship between me and the founder and the board. We just were not able to get on the same page about priorities and approach and tact. I had to leave and I resigned.
It is really painful because it was something I poured my heart into for years. It's like, you've built all these relationships with people, earned all this trust, and then to just disappear on it all. And then I had no job and no plan.
I had to create a whole new way of working and colleagues. I made a spreadsheet, which is what I usually do when I'm like, "What's happening here?" I put in the names of everyone I respected in ocean conservation, and I called and emailed all of them. I had meetings with all of them.
The spreadsheet was like your name, and then: Have I emailed you, and have you responded? Have we set up a time, if not have I followed up with you? What is your advice on what organizations I should work at? What are the types of skills I should be bringing to my next job?
Eventually, doors start opening through the people that you meet. That was like a very scary starting-from-scratch moment where I had to think about: Okay, what am I good at? What will get me out of bed in the morning and then also somehow pay my bills? Is something that the world needs?
WHAT'S THE BEST PIECE OF PROFESSIONAL ADVICE YOU'VE EVER RECEIVED?
After grad school, I worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on U.S. federal ocean policy. Someone told me that, "Whoever has the pen has the power." If you are drafting things, that is where the power lies. And I realized that you can have the pen if you are willing to just work harder and work on some weekends. So I was helping to draft federal ocean policy because I was like, "Sure, I'll do it. I'll help."
You have to just put it on paper and write it down. Because that is the first step to it becoming real. And if you're the person who's like, "I will write it," you have so much control and influence because like you are literally crafting the draft and the narrative and putting in what you think is going to be important.
You have to be the one to tell your own story and take credit for your own work by writing about it, too.
The last thing I'll say is that my dad's advice and my mom's, too, was "Choose your battles." And just basically goes for everything.
You can't be the person that fights everything. You should fight when you need to and stick up for what you believe in, but if you're going to get hung up on every little thing, you're never going to get anything done.
Of course, we should all be treated well and stand up for what we believe in at all times. But it's very stressful to be in combat mode all the time. It doesn't feel good.
Instead of fighting the past and fighting old structures, I've been really focused on how are we building the future? And who can I team up with to build it?
The interview above has been edited for clarity and brevity.