Minorities in Marine Biology: The Dearth of Black Professors

At the next conference, symposium or faculty meeting you attend take a good look at the landscape around you. Are the halls dotted with a variety of trees or are you drowning in a sea of monotony?

As a marine ecologist I am trained to measure diversity. Diversity has many attributes and consequences. Biodiversity is linked to the health of ecosystems – a more diverse landscape protects against nature’s uncertainty. Biodiversity is also imperative for the health of people – a more diverse landscape improves environmental quality and provides a wide variety of ecosystem services that we often take for granted.

In ecology, diversity is assessed in several ways depending on the question you are asking. It is not always so relevant that we have a certain number of individuals in a community, but how evenly spread the differences are among these individuals and the relative proportion of differences are also important. While we hold dear to our theories in research and training, we often disregard our lesson plan when it comes to our very own community of marine scientists.

Marine science is an attractive field, full of endless possibilities and some exciting job opportunities. This isn’t to say that it is a wide open field, jobs are hard to come by and the pay compares poorly with other disciplines in science, but for many like myself it is personally rewarding enough to justify the sacrifice. One of the greatest difficulties is identifying and attracting a diverse assemblage of future leaders of our beloved field. For African-Americans in particular there is little incentive and few role models in marine science. When I attend a meeting, I am drowning in a sea of pale monotony.

The statistics paint an uneven picture. In a 2000 report by the Commission of Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST) found that during 1993-96, 40% of white students were debt-free while in graduate school (i.e. were supported with stipends), compared to only 27% of all underrepresented minorities. In 1997, a comprehensive salary was carried out by NSF/SESTAT and showed a wide, but uneven gap in the difference of mean salary between white black scientists per education level and per occupation type. In the graph I constructed below, I displayed the difference between white and black salaries for each of the factors as reported by the NSF/SESTAT 1997 survey. Positive number means the gap favors white scientists, negative numbers favor black scientists.

Only in Life sciences there was a substantial gap where black scientists with a B.Sc. made on average $16,000 more than white scientists. I am unsure why this is and welcome suggestions (I double checked the data and math), but could represent biases or inaccuracies in the initial salary survey. This gap is flipped over as the degree gets higher, a white PhD in life sciences earns on average $5,000 more than a black PhD. A more modest increase in salary for black scientists occurred also among Bachelors-level social scientists, but again when you climb the degree ladder black social scientists earn $5,000 less, on average, than there white colleagues. Overall, the situation in science and engineering occupations is still a bit bleak at the moment for equality.

Ernest Just

Perhaps one of the reasons that there are so few black professors in marine science is that there are historically few role models for recruiting black students into the field. The first American black professor in marine science was a eminent physiologist who taught at Howard College. Ernest Just was an amazing scientist by today’s standards to be sure, but especially when you view his accomplishments in light of the culture surrounding the early 20th century, the time he came to his own academically.

Born in 1883 and educated at Dartmouth graduating magna cum laude in 1907, Ernest went directly to Howard College to teach. He completed a doctoral dissertation in 1917 at University of Chicago on experimental embryology, studying fertilization in nereid polychaetes and sand dollars. His work was very important and ASBMB has a very good article online about his scientific thought, history and accomplishments so I will not address it here. With over 50 publications, in addition to several books and book chapters, Just was recognized as at the forefront of his field. George Arthur wrote of him in 1932 (quoted from here):

“If we are to judge his accomplishments by standards set up by men of science, it can be said that Dr. Just is an eminent scientist. If we are to judge his value to Negro education by what he has accomplished in the realm of science, it can be said that to Negro youth especially, he demonstrates the possibility of human achievement regardless of race or color. In the language of Dean Kelly Miller in an appreciation of Dr. Just, What boots it that Euclid was a Greek, Newton an Englishman, Marconi an Italian or Guttenburg a German? Their genius has enriched the blood of mankind regardless of place, time, race or nationality.“-George R. Arthur. Ernest Just, Biologist., The Crisis, February 1932, p. 46.

Roger Arliner Young

In his position at Howard he was able to mentor other black students. In particular he convinced the young black woman Roger Arliner Young to switch her major from Music to Zoology after studying with him. Young became the first black woman to obtain a PhD in Zoology in 1940, studying the effects of radiation on sea urchin eggs and paramecium anatomy, but had a long collaboration with Ernest Just after she graduated Howard with a B.Sc. in 1923. Young taught at several southern colleges, including Shaw University and Southern University, where she undoubtedly had an enormous influence on the students attending her classes as well.

One of the most accomplished black marine biologists was Samuel Nabrit. Raised in Macon, Georgia, he went on to receive a masters degree from University of Chicago and in 1932 became the first black recipient of a PhD in Biological Science at Brown University. He studied tail fin regeneration in fish at the Marine Biological Laboratories in Wood’s Hole and subsequent to obtaining his PhD he took up more administrative duties at several southern universities and contributed to the literature on desegregation in sciences and higher education for African Americans. While he effectively was not a mentor as marine biologist, he had large role in paving the way forward for black scientists through his many administrative. For instance, Nabrit was the first black board of trustees member for Brown University, a member of the board for MBL at Wood’s Hole, head of the biology department at Morehouse College (where he received his bachelor’s degree), chair of the biology department and then dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at Atlanta University, and the second president of Texas Southern University. Lyndon B. Johnson even appointed him to the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1960s, where he was the first black to serve. There is no doubt that while he was directly influencing and mentoring students into marine biology careers, he was doing a great service to future black scientists behind the scenes in his administrative roles.

Today though I know of very few black marine biology professors in the US. Though now retired, Dr. Robert Trench from UCSB made very important advances in invertebrate-algal symbioses from the 1970s to present. American Society for Limnology and Oceanography has had a multiculturalism initiative for 20 years that has contributed mentorship to nearly 600 marine and aquatic sciences students during this time. While several ethnic backgrounds are represented on the online mentor profiles, only six individuals are African American (three are geoscientists).

The dearth of black professors in marine biology threatens to discipline in at least 2 very important ways. First, and foremost, it doesn’t give a face to the field for black undergraduate students. Leading by example is a fundamental principle in education. Showing that marine biology is accepting towards, and encouraging of, diversity will attract talent to not just marine biology, but to science in general. People might pay attention to educators who are a little more like them. Most undergraduates need that small leap of inspiration to make that career decision. Second, less black professors are less voices in unison against the absurd gap in pay. While certainly not confined to marine biology, this is a problem in all STEM careers, it will continue to be a plague until the choir of dissent rises above the threshold of prejudice. Blatant mistreatment such as this also discourages young career-seekers from the field.

Please use the comment section to discuss solutions or to tell me about a black marine biology professor that has made an impact on you or someone you know. I would love to get a list of active black lecturers and professors in the marine sciences. Please keep the discussion limited to the topic, other minorities will be treated in future editions.

Kevin Zelnio (886 Posts)





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42 comments on “Minorities in Marine Biology: The Dearth of Black Professors
  1. This post was several months in the making and lots of research. I hope it can generate some serious discussion.

  2. hm. this might seem a trivial point, but i recall reading that 60% of black kids can not swim, vs. 30% of white kids (came up in the context of some recent drownings of black teens). that might immediately result in blacks with science talent disproportionately avoiding marine science if they have no preexistent affinity with being in and around water.

    • That’s interesting Razib, certainly having a predisposition to the basic elements of any field is a prerequisite to generating an interest in it as a career choice.

      • I think this is a pretty key point. Every single “why do you want to be a marine biologist” essay starts with a cliched trip to the tidepools as a kid, or with snorkeling around a coral reef. These are not opportunities that everyone has – especially if they don’t live on a coast or don’t have good public transportation or a car. There are plenty of kids here in San Diego who have never been to the beach, much less the tidepools. And of course, being able to swim is absolutely critical to being comfortable around water or on boats.

        • Angelo made a similar comment on facebook regarding this post:

          “A lot of people who I know in the field grew up around nature, whether it was parents who took them on vacations to national parks or simply living away from the city. A lot of minorities, not just African Americans, live in places with not a lot of nature. I think the instinct to become a scientist starts when you are a kid and a lot of minority kids aren’t being exposed to the necessary stimuli.”

          • I’m from Long Island, NY. The notion that black people can’t swim is sort of ridiculous. Granted, I am exceptional, but not that exceptional… Former USCG Officer, life guard, avid surfer, avid diver, current Marine Biologist and lifelong learner with the ocean. But seriously, I could make a serious argument that the thrust of black scholarship went towards other, more pressing issues, for a great deal of time. I am a student of Ernest Everett Just, and I walked his halls and graduated from Howard University, the “college” that you referred to in your article.

  3. Is it just me, or does Ernest Just look like a young Blair Underwood?

    In all seriousness, there are scholarship opportunities everywhere for minorities in marine science, not to mention that a number of HBCUs have hired new positions in marine science lately (e.g., Savannah State). My sense is that it’s indeed a cultural block rather than an economic one. One could go on and on about role models, but as someone with a minority student in my current lab, mentoring CAN be done colorblind, and students will come to a good advisor regardless of whether they share the same skin tone.

    • I personally feel that by taking a “colorblind” approach, we are doing our students a disservice. I agree that mentors can be people outside a students ethnic background– otherwise, I would not be where I am now. I am currently the only Latina doctoral student in biology at my institution; however, people still see my color, and the fact that I’m a woman…and a soon-to-be mother. It’s not about being colorblind, but about gaining a deeper appreciation and respect for our students’ cultures without “deleting” that important aspect of their identity.

  4. I am an educator and am longing for the time when our brilliant young minds can reach the heights they are capable of achieving.

    Our young children, teens, technical and college students need support of all types from personal to financial and then they need adult mentors for the careers they choose—it never stops!

    Everyone, please, find a child or adult that can benefit from your experience. Meet with them weekly or monthly and establish a relationship that will help improve the quality of their lives—you won’t regret it!

  5. Kevin, this is a fantastic post that I will be sure to share with my biology colleagues here at North Carolina Central University and see if they can help add to your list. Well-researched, well-written, and a post I hope that will raise greater awareness about diversity in your field. It’s quite interesting to read that Roger Arliner Young taught at Shaw – quite a few superb African-American women scientists there – the same university where NCCU founder, James E. Shepard received his pharmacy degree in the late 1890s.

    I also want to be sure to share your post with Rue Mapp, writer of the blog Outdoor Afro. Given that marine biology has a good deal of field work, I’m certain she’ll have some comments.

    • Thanks David! Please distribute widely, I would love to someday put together a post titled: “Minorities in Marine Biology: Solutions to Generating Opportunities for a Diverse Community”

  6. A Great post indeed. Early experiences really do make a difference…and so do the people who encourage or discourage young people along the way. One of my high school kids LOVED dolphins and seriously wanted to be a marine biologist. I encouraged her to do so. At a scientific meeting she attended with me (yes) I introduced her to EVERY one of them there. Her interest was/still is strong, but her family thought it was a cute idea. There are no oceans in St. Louis. Plus the thought was that becoming a nurse was more practical…and that’s still sciencey, right.

    We’ll need a multi-attack approach to crack this issue. But very insightful article.
    Thanks Kevin.

    • As a born-and-raised midwesterner I can understand! I always midwestern grade school students that when they turn 18, they should go far away and experience one of the coasts or the south. It can be very insulating there and gets too comfortable. I hope your student will follow their passion! Chris Mah made an interesting point on Facebook regarding this post that fields like Marine Biology is regarded by many as “vanity sciences”, i.e. its not very practical, and many minorities’ families encourage practical career options to their children. His full comment was:

      “Its always been explained to me that one of the biggest reasons is rooted in socialization. Black families are often rooted in poorer socioeconomic conditions than whites. So, if they get a chance to go to college-its generally an opportuni…ty to find something pragmatic that returns to the community & that permits financial support. Marine and other natural sciences are essentially vanity sciences to many institutions, which in spite of the lip service is still why they are underpaid and have so few jobs. Someone trying to climb a social ladder isn’t going to find that appealing….that’s not the only reason-but supporting yourself is an important consideration..”

  7. Very interesting post! I’m surprised that Daniel Pauly wasn’t mentioned as a marine biologist who is black. (I think he’s biracial, but many people who are biracial often identify as black. As a side note, I don’t actually know Dr. Pauly, but I’m really familiar with his work). Also, I recently met an inspiring young marine biologist from Ghana, who started a non-profit to educate children in her country about marine ecosystems. She’s not a professor, but I’m sure that her work will do a lot to encourage youth in Ghana to study marine science.

    • Rebecca, thanks for your comment. I was focusing on the situation in the United States and Dr. Pauly is in Canada. I didn’t quite make that clear in my article. But yes, he has done some tremendous work!

      Africa is a place where “home grown” experts in marine biology are desperately needed. So much potential exists there, especially with their abundant marine resources. I believe in some African countries, there exists great potential provide jobs in marine science.

  8. I co-sign Chris Mah completely! A similar question is asked when any student of color shows science promise leans toward med school instead of grad school. It’s about praticality of career choice plus the role model thing. There are plenty of black doctors to emulate, not so many sci profs or science experts on tv.

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  10. If I am ever in a position to mentor minority students, I would think that making the effort to get to know minority students and their interests would help. Make them feel comfortable in what may be a very uncomfortable or even intimidating class/environment. I would try to help them to see that a career in marine science is not something that other people do, but something that they could do. Most undergraduates in the bio dept are hoping to enter the health sciences, but a bit of hands on lab experience might help them get into graduate school and MAYBE a few would find the work interesting enough to go into marine science. The comments about cultural and economic differences are quite valid, I think. But there isn’t a whole lot I could do about that. But I could actively try to get minority students involved.

  11. Nice article Kevin. I’m not sure why, though, you limited to the dearth of african american marine scientists? How many native american, hawaiian/alaskan, or even hispanic american marine biology professors do you find in the US? Anyway, if you know anyone who may be interested, there are several GREAT programs that encourage undergrads from minority groups to explore marine science. To name a few: at Western WA Univ. there is MIMSUP, ASLO has their minority program, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst. has an undergrad minority summer fellowship. I’m also a big fan of the McNair Scholars program which encourages minorities and first generation college students to pursue advanced degrees. Check ‘em out.

    • I am intended this to be series of posts of the various minorities. I chose african americans first. Thanks for the tips, I’ll check out those programs!

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  13. I am currently at the National Marine Sanctuary in Key Largo, Florida. I am working with many remarkable marine scientist. I would encourage anyone seeking an entry to this field look at NOAA and the NABS. Please check out the http://www.oceanslive.org web site. Let’s do something about the lack of marine scientist and engineers.

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  21. Nice history lesson, KZ! I’d missed this post before for some reason so I’m glad it turned up on your 12 Months list.

  22. Nice work. With regard to the gap in average pay that might be related to something I seem to be finding in some stats I’m looking though. The proportion of minority faculty is not uniform across all institutions. It seems to be lower for the “top” universities. I’ll have to confirm that and also take a look at average salaries, which are available for many schools.

  23. There are actually some minority students entering this field. you may wish to check this site. http://www.msphds.org/prospective.asp

    I peraonlly am associated with African American geoscientist organization (www.nabgg.org) and our members are from a rather wide ranging field from hydrology to marine geology to astrophysics….

    A friend of mine founded this program a few years ago.

    Regards, Robert J

    • Rob, thanks for stopping by and sharing your project! I wonder if you have any insight into where the members of NABGG and MSPHDs are finding jobs. Academia? Industry? Consulting? etc.

  24. One of my divorced parents and her partner, who were staunchly Afro-centric at the time, flatly refused to allow me to attend the only high school for marine biology; when I clearly stated at 13 that was my chosen field! Oh by the way, they had college degrees (in social science) and one was pursuing a graduate degree (in social science). Not only that, I was not allowd to attend any science high school. They, of course, had their “reasons” which had more to do with their emotionally bankrupt upbringing– more than anything else.

    I swam—-my favorite sport. But it was not theirs. They were land lovers. I wasn’t. I lived within walking distance of a marina. My summer camp had boating trips.

    I know of two African American women denied the opportunity to become physicians (though they had the talent); by their mothers. When requesting a microscope, it was given to a cousin instead who became a firefighter and he never had any real interest or talent in medicine.

    So, I place the dearth of African American scientists and professors squarely at the feet of those African American parents who ignore the interests of the children and substitute their own and expect everything to work out fine.

    There are plenty of talented and interested children, who are ignored by the adults in the community. You can attempt to talk to these parents for days and they still do not get it, until it is too late and because of lack of preparation their children are really not qualified to enter into some of these programs or schools. I have given up trying to tell parents, with children with obvious math and science talent, that their children need to take alegbra by the eighth grade to be considered for public science high schools or the top colleges in America. Here is a another story — when her child was in the 6th grade a parent was approached to enroll her child in a prep program (at an elite university) to prepare him for college. Enrolling the child in a sports program was more important to this parent. Guess what, both of her children went in the front door of college and left out the back door without a degree and never to return.

    A major problem is the parents of some of these intelligent children, who would not recognize an opportunity if it bit them in the face.

    • Dear Frustrated Wannabe Marine Scientist,

      I too have experienced the phenomena that you are describing, ( Parents not providing the opportunity for interested kids).

      But through living I have learned that our parents did the best they could with the information that they had at hand.

      Your parents may have been in fear for your well being had you pursued these careers. Racist and racism exists in these fields at an all time high, even at this time. You would have entered a field of study that has not showed real interest with involving people of color in studying these sciences.

      Please go and study marine sciences now. I am. I have advanced degree and engineering backgrounds. I am going to challenge them now. I have a family and expenses that new college grads don’t have yet, so, my pursuit is very tough.

      If I can pursue these advanced degrees at this point in my life, so can you. Please join me in pursuing the advanced degree and blaze a trail for others.

      Best Wishes

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  26. Thank you for your interesting and much needed post. I am an ethinic minority marine PhD student, who is also a woman (and I will admit to you guys strictly anonymously LGBT). I am very enthusiastic about this subject, am lucky to have full support from my family around the world and like to think I am a strong B+ candidate. Of course I strive to become a first class candidate, but that is a seperate issue…

    Although I have received fair treatment and equal opportunities from a vast majority of white and international lecturers, profs and fellow students, who have been very supportive, I think it is important to share my darker experience, to raise awarness to the battles minorities have to face in reality.

    As an undergraduate in an on paper “the best” school, a group of white male over-powerful Profs decided to professionally target me (for reasons largely unknown to me). They did everything in their power to deny me the same learning opportunities as my white male/female collegues. They decided to use unfair tactics such as isolate me from other more supportive and helpful lecturers. They regularly misrepresented me to other lecturers and sadly even gave me completely unfair grade in the modules they governed. They expected me to fail some other modules in which I actually got a first class grades. They would emphasise my defacts and completely overlook my talents. As they were much better qualified and powerful, their completely cruel and inaccurate opinion was regarded as “true” and the sad fact is that my supportive collegues and people I thought were my friends, just remained silent, even if they knew what those guys were doing was wrong.

    I was scared to voice a complaint against my own university as an undergraduate minority student, which had otherwise helped me so much and was scared of being victimised for complaining about such a sensitive matter. Fortunately, I managed to stay very strong and achieved my predicted result and went on to do a very strong MSc in a more liberal school. But still, I have had to run away from those nasty people and stay out of their research circles ever since and have lost many professional scientific opportunities inorder to “SURVIVE” as a researcher. I am still happy for the oppotunities I have had, but still feel bad that I cannot visit the place where I did my undergraduate degree, in fear of sparking off an “attack”. I had spent YEARS to build new bridges in my community with most of my collegues and educate them about my culture – and those guys simply stamped all over my life. I felt betrayed by my organisation, when I use to be one of it’s most loyal students. This reality was such a taboo subject to complain about, I had remain silent about this kind of institutional racism. I had to work much harder than my white collegues to be given the same credit as them. There was nobody I could turn to for help.

    I have been very lucky to have made it this far, but I do know students who have had to run away without degrees, due to these “corrupt academics.”

    • Hang in there Anon, and build constituencies. I wish you had named names, schools and programs. We need to shine a light on those who dare be racist at this time. Only by lifting the veil of secrecy can we steer future students to more supportive environments and build a future for the world where may all make contributions.

  27. As a young African American who intends to go into marine sciences I am elated that this article exists. I assumed there were no role models in this field, and decided that I would eventually make do. I believe having a person of color is not only familiar, but can be comforting as well. I have been searching for grad schools and the first professors I look for are ones of color. Of course, it is not a requirement for me but it would be nice.

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