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Amber Johnson is the First African American Woman PhD Graduate of Purdue’s Department of Computer Science


August 3rd, 2019 marks the day that Amber Johnson, a PhD candidate of Purdue University’s Department of Computer Science (Purdue CS), will join a group of over 80 College of Science graduate students receiving their degrees. 

This accomplishment also marks the first time an African American woman PhD candidate will graduate from Purdue CS.

The Decision to Pursue a PhD in Computer Science

Johnson attributes her mathematical and computational skills to her mother, a mathematics major from Jackson State University. Johnson completed her Bachelor of Science in computer science at The LeMoyne-Owen College and received her Master of Science degree in computer science from Jackson State University. She was a member of the Louis Stokes Mississippi Alliance for Minority Participation (LSMAMP) program which helped in her decision to pursue a PhD in computer science. Ultimately, she received fellowships from the National Physical Science Consortium (NPSC) and the Alliances for Graduate Education and Professoriate (AGEP) which enabled her to attend the Purdue CS doctoral program. 

Johnson visited Purdue University through the Multicultural-Historically Black Institution (M-HBI) Visitation Program which brings underrepresented minority students on campus visits to meet with faculty. On her Purdue visit, she met Department Head and Professor Sunil Prabhakar. Johnson was encouraged by the hospitality and support she received during her meeting with Prabhakar, which would later help solidify her decision to accept admission to the PhD program. “When I visited Purdue, I felt very comfortable talking with him about the CS department and the university. I felt like this was where I was supposed to be.” While visiting, and later after entering the doctoral program at Purdue, she found connection and support within the College of Science diversity program directed by Dr. Zenephia Evans. “From the moment I walked onto campus, Dr. Evans took me under her wing. She wouldn’t let me retreat into isolation, which can happen to students. She is my rock,” Johnson said. Proud of Johnson’s success, Dr. Evans added, “Amber was determined and driven to earn a PhD in computer science from Purdue. Her journey to West Lafayette laid the foundation for her success and opened doors for others to follow as the first African American woman to earn a degree in the 57-year history of the doctoral program.”

While at Purdue, Johnson served as a member of several organizations on campus - most notably, as President of the Computer Science Graduate Student Board. Johnson piloted programs intended to create community within the department, such as a peer-mentoring program as well as Social Power Hour, a weekly social gathering of graduate students sharing research.

“Sometimes Research Chooses You”

Johnson’s research focuses on using data science in conjunction with electronic health records and determining best clinical practices for treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). Five years ago, just before the start of her second year in the doctoral program, Amber’s aunt, Ethel J. Cooper passed away after enduring nearly a thirty-year battle with COPD. Determined to contribute to COPD research, Johnson applied her computing skills to establish best practices for COPD clinical guidelines using data science in electronic health records. Johnson attributes her faith and relationships with faculty as mechanisms that allowed her to be successful in her research. She found encouragement from Professor Eugene Spafford, Professor Sam Wagstaff, and Professor Chris Clifton.

Professor Clifton suggested her research might fit well with the Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering (RCHE) at Purdue’s Discovery Park. It was a successful partnership and Johnson eventually worked as a Graduate Student Data Scientist at RCHE. In her dissertation, Generating Evidence COPD Clinical Guideline Using EHRs, she used large data sets of electronic health records (EHRs) to determine the most effective times and doses of medications to treat COPD.

Her charisma and energy were apparent to Paul Griffin, director of RCHE and professor of industrial engineering. “In healthcare there is often limited evidence-based guidelines for the care of patients. Amber developed a novel approach that uses EHR data to improve guidelines to help physicians choose the best care pathway for their patients. She specifically studied clinical questions for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) guidelines based on her approach. An example is the determination of the best time to administer antibiotics for COPD patients in the intensive care unit,” said Griffin. Though her pilot research specifically focused on COPD clinical guidelines, the concept and structure of her research enables other conditions and diseases to have the same method applied to determine best outcomes for patients. Griffin added, “I should mention that everyone at the Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering was extremely impressed with Amber’s intelligence, creativity, and work ethic. She was also an absolute joy to work with and I always looked forward to our meetings together. We will all miss Amber.”

Diversity in Computer Science PhD Programs

According to the 2017 CRA Taulbee Survey, 18.3% of PhD Computer Science degrees were granted to women. The survey, conducted annually by the Computing Research Association (CRA), documents trends in student enrollment and degree production. The same survey reports black or African Americans represented 1.1% of PhD graduates in Computer Science from 2013-2017.

Johnson believes it is progress for Purdue Computer Science to have an African American woman receive a PhD and she wants there to be more. She believes it is the same kind progress she sees in her mentorship of African American students, like in Black Girls Rock Tech, a computational and leadership program for adolescent girls where she served as an instructor. “I have mentors like Dr. Raquel Hill and Dr. Jamika Burge, who are pioneers in the CS community, and I want to pay it forward,” said Johnson. One of Johnson’s previous students, when she served as an instructor for the Girls Who Code program, asked her for a letter of recommendation. Johnson was overjoyed when her student was accepted into computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. “Many girls learning to code don't have female teachers and they definitely don't have black teachers or black female teachers. I relate to their struggles when they speak of their high school computer science classes - full of boys and with a male teacher. “I want those girls to know I felt the same way, but through it all, I made it,” said Johnson.

Her advice to students of color wanting to pursue or complete a PhD, is to find a community like Johnson found with the Black Graduate Student Association at Purdue. She also recommends working with organizations that help other students. “I really don't know how to be anybody other than myself. When I taught other students how to code, it helped me overcome my insecurities by sharing who I was and the struggles I faced.”

Next in her career, Johnson will be joining Northrup Grumman in Maryland and is part of the Future Technical Leader (FTL) program where she will have an opportunity to work in various locations around the country. The FTL program is a recruiting and professional development opportunity the company uses to identify highly capable individuals and invest in the next generation of technologists and leaders.


Dr. Amber Johnson
Title: Generating Evidence COPD Clinical Guideline Using EHRs
Advisor: Professor Bharat Bhargava
Dissertation Committee: Professor Mohammad Adibuzzaman, Professor Bharat Bhargava, Professor Chris Clifton, Professor Eugene Spafford, and Professor Sam Wagstaff


Writer: Emily Kinsell, 765-494-0669,, @emilykinsell

Media Contact: Matthew Oates,, 765-586-7496


Last Updated: Nov 1, 2023 9:36 AM

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