Minorities in marine biology: the shortage of black professors


At the next conference, symposium, or faculty meeting you attend, take a close look at the landscape around you. Are the rooms dotted with various 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 the uncertainty of nature. Biodiversity is also imperative for people’s health – a more diverse landscape improves the quality of the environment and provides a wide variety of ecosystem services that we often take for granted.

In ecology, diversity is appreciated in several ways depending on the question we ask ourselves. It is not always so relevant that we have a certain number of individuals in a community, but the equal distribution of the differences between those individuals and the relative proportion of the differences are also important. While we hold on to our theories in research and training, we often neglect our lesson plan when it comes to our own community of marine scientists.

Marine science is an attractive field, full of endless possibilities and exciting job opportunities. That’s not to say that this is a large open field, that jobs are hard to find, and that salaries compare poorly to other science disciplines, but for many like me, it’s rewarding enough. personally to justify the sacrifice. One of the greatest challenges is identifying and attracting a diverse assemblage of future leaders from our beloved field. For African Americans in particular, there are few incentives and few role models in marine science. When I attend a meeting, I drown in a sea of ​​pale monotony.

The statistics paint an uneven picture. In a 2000 Report of the Commission of Science and Technology Professionals (CPST) found that between 1993 and 1996, 40% of white students had no debt while in graduate school (i.e., they received stipends), compared with only 27% of all under-represented minorities. In 1997, total compensation was achieved by NSF / SESTAT and showed a large but uneven gap in the difference in average salary between black and white scientists by level of education and type of occupation. In the graph I constructed below, I displayed the difference between white and black wages for each of the factors as reported by the 1997 NSF / SESTAT survey. A positive number means the gap favors white scientists, negative numbers favor black scientists.

It was only in the life sciences that there was a substantial gap where black scientists with a B.Sc. made on average $ 16,000 more than white scientists. I’m not sure why and suggestions are welcome (I double-checked the data and calculations), but it could represent biases or inaccuracies in the initial salary survey. This gap is closing as the degree increases, a white doctorate in life sciences earns on average $ 5,000 more than a black doctorate. A more modest increase in the salary of black scientists has also occurred among bachelor’s-level social scientists, but again, when you move up the degree ladder, black social scientists earn $ 5,000 less, on average. , than their white colleagues. Overall, the situation in the scientific and technical professions is still a little grim so far for equality.

Ernest Just

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

Born 1883 and educated in Dartmouth, graduating magna cum laude in 1907, Ernest went straight to Howard College to teach. He completed a doctoral thesis in 1917 at the 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 on its scientific thought, its history and its achievements, I will therefore not discuss it here. With over 50 publications, in addition to several books and book chapters, Just was recognized as being at the forefront of his field. George Arthur wrote about him in 1932 (quoted from here):

“If we are to judge his achievements by the standards set by scientists, it can be said that Dr. Just is a distinguished scientist. If we are to judge its value to black education by what it has accomplished in the field of science, it can be said that to black youth in particular it demonstrates the possibility of human achievement without distinction of race or color. In the language of Dean Kelly Miller in an assessment by Dr. Just, What makes Euclid a Greek, Newton an Englishman, Marconi an Italian or Guttenburg a German? Their genius enriched the blood of humanity without distinction of place, time, race or nationality.“-George R. Arthur. Ernest Just, biologist., Crisis, February 1932, p. 46.

Roger Arliner Young

In his position at Howard, he was able to mentor other black students. He notably convinced the young black woman Roger Arliner Young to graduate from music to zoology after studying with him. Young became the first black woman to earn a doctorate in zoology in 1940, studying the effects of radiation on sea urchin eggs and the anatomy of paramecium, but had a long collaboration with Ernest. in 1923. Young taught at several colleges in the south, including Shaw University and Southern University, where she undoubtedly had a huge influence on the students who attended her classes.

One of the most accomplished black marine biologists was Samuel Nabrit. Raised in Macon, Georgia, he received a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and in 1932 became the first black to earn a doctorate in biological sciences from Brown University. He studied caudal fin regeneration in fish at the Wood’s Hole Marine Biological Laboratories and after earning his doctorate, he took on more administrative duties at several southern universities and contributed to the literature on desegregation in science and higher education for African Americans. Although he was not effectively a mentor as a marine biologist, he played an important role in paving the way for black scientists through his many administrative services. For example, Nabrit was the first black board member at Brown University, MBL board member at Wood’s Hole, head of the biology department at Morehouse College (where he earned his bachelor’s degree), chairman of the biology department and then dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Atlanta and 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 directly influenced and mentored students towards careers in marine biology, he was doing a great service to future black scientists behind the scenes in his administrative roles.

Today, I know very few black professors of marine biology in the United States. Although now retired, Dr Robert Trench from UCSB made very significant progress in invertebrate-algal symbiosis from the 1970s to the present day. American Society of Limnology and Oceanography has had a multiculturalism initiative for 20 years which has helped mentor nearly 600 marine and aquatic science students during that time. While several ethnic origins are represented on the online mentor profiles, only six individuals are African-American (three are geoscientists).

The shortage of black professors in marine biology threatens to discipline at least 2 very important ways. First of all, that doesn’t give the field a face for black undergraduates. Leading by example is a fundamental principle of education. Showing that marine biology accepts and encourages diversity will attract talent not only to marine biology, but to science in general. People might pay attention to educators who are more like them. Most undergraduates need this little leap of inspiration to make this career decision. Second, fewer black professors have fewer voices in unison against the absurd pay gap. While it is certainly not limited to marine biology, this is a problem in all STEM careers, it will continue to be a bane until the chorus of dissent breaks through the threshold of prejudice. . Blatant abuse like this also discourages young career seekers in the field.

Please use the comments section to discuss solutions or tell me about a black marine biology professor who has had an impact on you or someone you know. I would like a list of black lecturers and professors active in marine science. Please limit discussion to topic, other minorities will be covered in future editions.

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