Lissa Moses Johnson: Challenging the Stereotype of the Scientist

Lissa Moses Johnson: Challenging the Stereotype of the Scientist

By Meredith Crawford


What does a scientist look like?


If you’re of a certain age, you might think of Mr. Wizard or Bill Nye the Science Guy. But, thanks to Lissa Moses Johnson and the eponymous heroine of color in the animated series she created, Mosa Mack, there’s a growing number of young people in grades 4 through 8 who wouldn’t think to define a scientist in such a narrow way.


The idea for the “hip, street-savvy, animated preteen who never met a query she didn’t like,” says Johnson, was born in a science classroom in Harlem, New York.


“I went through the New York City Teaching Fellows program and taught middle-school science at Thurgood Marshall Academy for two years,” says Johnson. “While I was there, I noticed that the web-based science resources lacked rigor and diversity. I wanted my students to identify as scientists, but what they were seeing in the media was mostly Caucasian males as scientists. I wanted to show my students that science was for everyone and it was inherently exciting.”


Johnson’s plan to challenge gender and cultural stereotypes, as well as to broaden the appeal of science by delivering inquiry-based lessons with 21st-century flavor, began to take shape when she started to flesh out the character or Mosa Mack. The former teacher didn’t have far to look for inspiration.


“The character is loosely based off of a former student of mine. She was not a know-it-all in science, but rather was curious about the subject and as a result asked really interesting questions,” Johnson reveals. “She had a very magnetic personality and was liked by her classmates. I wanted to bring out that same likability in the character.”


If Mosa Mack was the spark for the project, her “ragtag crew” proved further fuel. Johnson worked with a creative team to develop a series of webisodes featuring Mosa Mack and her friends, creating Mosa Mack Animations. These webisodes laid the foundation for Mosa Mack: Science Detective, a series of “short animated science mysteries” that premiered in classrooms across the United States in October 2013. In the pilot episode, Mosa Mack gathers clues to figure out the reason for a friend’s suddenly ravenous appetite (hint: it has to do with glucose and insulin). The episode is punctuated by pop-culture references and background music befitting a mystery film. But what underpins it is a wealth of biological information that’s presented in a straight-forward and easy-to-understand manner.


Johnson describes Mosa Mack as “Magic School Bus meets Law & Order.” She says “a mystery format allows students to truly interact with the content.”


And the reaction from students has proven that Moses Johnson’s found a recipe for success.


“After piloting the show at a charter school in Brooklyn, the students began talking about insulin and glucose and how it applied to the show. They used their own life experiences to solve the mystery. That is always inspiring and motivating,” says Johnson.


Still, when it comes to making science more interesting for a more inclusive group of students, Johnson believes she hasn’t cracked a code so much as lit a fire that was already there.


“Students are natural scientists,” she says. “It’s up to educators to make that connection for them. Students are always asking questions and drawing conclusions based on evidence.”


The real triumph of Mosa Mack, Johnson, says, is that it helps to empower young women and persons of color to act on that natural curiosity.


“We find that girls and children of color get stereotyped out of science at every major transitional period. Science itself is traditionally seen as a masculine discipline, and not many educational resources dispute that idea. It is important to show girls and children of color a character that has similar features to themselves so that they can grow up knowing that they are scientists. I would also say that it is important for male students to experience Mosa Mack episodes because they, too, will have a chance to redefine the image of a scientist.”


Since Johnson first conceived of Mosa Mack, she’s been named a Discovery Channel/Siemen’s STEM Institute Fellow (2011) and her work has been featured in the National Institute of Health, the Southeastern Consortium for Minorities in Engineering, NYU Poly STEM Center for K-12 Education, and other outlets. The greatest honor, though, is being able to help teachers to inspire underrepresented students, says Johnson. It’s a mission that continues to drive her as Mosa Mack continues to gain attention.    


I think there is an urgent need for quality resources that promote diversity. Good teachers and administrators are doing everything in their power to make the best of the resources they have, but teachers--every single lesson--have to accomplish multiple goals at once: they have to assist students who are falling behind, challenge the ones who are excelling, teach to the test, differentiate instruction, inspire their students, and promote diversity. So why not provide teachers with a resource that allows them to accomplish all of these goals at once?”


Each six-minute episode of Mosa Mack: Science Detective is aligned with Common Core Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. Each episode poses a science-related question to students and includes a customizable discussion guide that teachers can download. For more information, visit