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.
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.
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.