Smells of steak, vegetables, and onions filled the air, the sizzle complementing sounds of laughter and music. Students from a variety of Black student groups on campus came together to mingle and relax, enjoying the nice spring weather and community.
Surveying the scene with satisfaction was Devin Johnson, an aeronautical and astronautical engineering major and an executive board member of the Black Students’ Union. He had helped organize the event and was proud to have created a space where Black students were comfortable and having fun together.
Dubbed “Black People Outside,” the 2019 barbecue event would catalyze a series of outside community gatherings between Black student organizations on campus, some planned and others spontaneous. Johnson, now a senior, remains dedicated to serving his community.
“I care a lot about the community that I’m in and the people that I’m around. I’m very willing to give back in terms of supporting and encouraging those around me,” he says.
Johnson grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where he was constantly surrounded by his family, which is one his biggest support systems. Both of his parents had jobs which focused on caring for others, which made Johnson curious about the world and eager to make a difference in it.
The summer before coming to MIT, Johnson participated in MIT Online Science and Technology and Engineering Community (MOSTEC), a six-month online science and engineering program for high school seniors. He stayed at home during this time and took an astrophysics class, learning about the properties of light and color, the Doppler effect, and galaxy clusters, amongst other things. Excited and inspired, he decided to pursue aerospace at MIT, to learn more about mechanical and mathematical elements of space.
Upon arriving on campus, Johnson quickly focused on finding community. He found that in Chocolate City, a living group primarily of Black men. Johnson initially met the members while visiting MIT during his senior year of high school. He recalls feeling instantly at home, that he had found a space where he could branch out from and meet new people, but always come back to.
Within the organization, Johnson has taken on many leadership roles. In his sophomore year, he became the co-chair, overseeing all organization events and fundraisers. He currently serves as the resident peer mentor, giving incoming first year students advice for how to navigate both MIT and Boston. Johnson is also a member of Phi Beta Sigma, Inc., one of the “Divine 9” historically Black fraternities dedicated to giving back to the community. Their motto is: “Culture for service, and service for humanity,” which also inspires him in his work for Chocolate City and MIT’s Black Students’ Union.
Johnson’s participation in the BSU has offered him another way to build and support his community — and to be encouraged by others in return. He remembers a frightening encounter with the MIT Police, who had responded to a call that turned out to be a false allegation about violent activity. Johnson was immediately surrounded and supported by his fellow students, which he greatly appreciated.
“It was very scary. And the people were there for me to come back from that and deal with that where Chocolate City and the members of the BSU,” he recalls.
As the BSU’s attorney general, Johnson’s role was to build and maintain the relationships between the BSU and other organizations on campus. This involved attending different clubs’ events and even collaborating on activities, such as the annual cookout and Black Homecoming, two new annual events that Johnson helped coordinate under the BSU.
Johnson has continued to explore his fascination with aerospace while at MIT. In the spring of his junior year, he worked on a research project with the Aerospace Plasma Group, where he learned about plasma-assisted combustion, designing equipment to measure how to increase the efficiency of a combustion cycle to produce more power. While the experience was online because of the pandemic, Johnson was able to learn new skills in a variety of areas — not only manufacturing equipment, but the science behind the combustion.
Despite working remotely, Johnson built physical models in his home to better understand the data and research he was doing virtually. He hopes to continue this type of hands-on learning as an asset in future endeavors.
“It all goes back to curiosity and wanting to satisfy the pursuit of knowledge,” he says.
This past summer, Johnson worked as a system engineering intern in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). While this experience was also held remotely, he found that the digital platform allowed him to interface with more people in more departments. He joined a team overseeing the process of balancing the different projects all under the scope of sending a spacecraft to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Johnson was involved in building the spacecraft, as well as its various models, testing the durability of the design, and sending and operating it in space. He gained as much knowledge as he could, reaching out to people from different teams in different departments.
“It was really amazing that the curiosity that I have could be satisfied at any point by any person in that organization,” he says.
Johnson’s mentor at JPL was a Kristen Virkler, a Black software engineer who engaged with him in many conversations about being a Black employee at an aerospace company. The two were even able to talk about working as a young Black individual on an Instagram takeover on the company’s Instagram account. For Johnson, this experience was an exciting step toward combining his passions, by building community in the aerospace fields.
After graduating from MIT, Johnson plans to work for JPL full-time, where he aims help promote diversity, accessibility, and inclusion while also learning all he can about engineering.
“A lot of people don’t really know that aerospace engineering or space exploration is a field because of the fact that there are not a lot of people that look like them in the field. Diverse people lead to diverse ideas,” he says.