By Nicole Capozziello
Published January 22, 2021
Ever since his undergraduate years as a student at the University at Buffalo, Dexter Johnson has been striving to make the engineering field more diverse and supportive, at every level.
This work has been a thread throughout Johnson’s career, which has included celebrating 30 years at NASA this last September. Recently, Johnson (PhD ’95, MS ’89 mechanical, BS ’87 aerospace) was recognized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) as the winner of their 2021 Diversity and Inclusion Award.
“I am honored to receive this meaningful award which recognizes and highlights some of my contributions toward advancing diversity and inclusion efforts in the aerospace and defense industry,” says Johnson. “There is still much more work to be done and I’m committed to continuing such efforts towards realizing positive progress and lasting impact.”
Johnson received the annual award for his “significant contributions to advancing diversity and inclusion within the aerospace and astronautics community through AIAA collaborations with students and industry partners.” His recent work included participating in the AIAA’s forum on diversity, equity and inclusion in July 2020 and the AIAA/National Society of Black Engineers MLK Tribute to Service.
Johnson has long dedicated himself to bringing about social justice outside of the AIAA as well. In addition to his role at NASA, where he serves as the NASA Engineering and Safety Center Technical Fellow for Loads and Dynamics, he is also a minister, entrepreneur and frequent motivational speaker.
A Buffalo native, Johnson’s career in engineering got its start when he participated in the precursor to the program now known as the Buffalo-area Engineering Awareness Program (BEAM) during his high school years at City Honors. In 1995, he became the first BEAM student to graduate with an engineering PhD from the University at Buffalo.
During his time at UB, he was one of the founding members of the campus chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), which he continues to be an active member of today. In his over 30 years of active participation with NSBE, he has been involved in membership, student leadership, mentorship, and corporate recruitment.
Recently, inspired by his personal experiences and his reaction to past and present events, including the wrongful death of George Floyd in May, Johnson formed ROAR–Root Out All Racism. With the movement, he intends to “help eliminate racism and promote social justice.”
“Resting on a ‘three-legged stool foundation,’ ROAR is comprised of the three areas of my life: aerospace pioneer, reconciliation ambassador, and excellence cultivator,” says Johnson.
He has remained involved with the University at Buffalo throughout his career. In June 2020, he was invited by President Tripathi to join UB’s new Advisory Council on Race. “I’m ‘dexcited’ about the council’s stated objective ‘to combat racism and dismantle structural barriers to equality within UB’s policies, programs, activities and traditions,’” he says.
Within the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, he served as a member of the Deans Advisory Council from 2010-2015 and delivered the keynote speech as part of the Second Annual Career Perspectives and Networking Conference, an annual event that includes networking receptions, lightning talks, panel discussions and distinguished speakers from industrial leaders.
Johnson received the Clifford C. Furnas Memorial award from UB’s Alumni Association in 2012 and was named a 60 years of Excellence - Distinguished Alumni of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 2006.
In 2014, Johnson was recognized with the NASA Honor Award - Equal Employment Opportunity Medal. This award acknowledges an individual’s “outstanding commitment to the diversity and inclusion values within the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fields while executing the NASA mission.”
Johnson’s other awards and honors include: the NASA Administrator‘s Fellowship Program (1998–2000), NASA Honor Award–Exceptional Service Medal (1998); Structures Division Mentor of the Year Award at NASA Glenn (2003); National Technical Association Technical Achiever of the Year–Technologist Category Award (2003); Science Spectrum Magazine Trailblazer Award (2006); NASA Honor Award–Group Achievement Award (2008); Celestial Torch Award–Aerospace Pioneer of the Year from NSBE Aerospace Systems Conference (2010); the City Honors School Alumni Award (2012); and an AIAA Associate Fellow (2018).
The AIAA Board of Trustees presented Johnson with a certificate of citation at the 2021 AIAA SciTech Forum, which was held virtually from January 11–21, 2021.