Happy Black History Month! This month, we're celebrating the voices and works of key Black scientists and activists in the fields of marine science and environmental justice. Explore our profiles of researchers and advocates who made waves in the sciences of animal behavior, corals, biodiversity, and more!
Dr. Joan Murrell Owens
Although unable to conduct ocean dives herself due to sickle cell anemia, Dr. Owens nonetheless managed to discover three new species of button corals and an entirely new genus of coral by meticulously cataloging the Smithsonian's coral samples. She was also the first Black woman to be awarded a PhD in geology.
Photo Courtesy of Digital Howard at Howard University
- Owens began her career not a marine biologist, but as an art major and in guidance counseling. At the age of 37 she finally made the choice to follow her dream of being a marine biologist, after which she received a bachelor's degree in geology with a focus on paleontology and zoology. During this time, she worked as a museum technician at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
- While working for the museum's paleontology department, she catalogued specimens and was able to identify a new coral genus Rhombopsammia, and three new species of button corals, R. niphada, R. squiresi, and Letepsammia franki. L. franki was named for her husband, Frank.
- Owens had a passion for her students as well, and was a beloved teacher by her students both when teaching English and once she became a geology professor. Her dedication to teaching is evidenced in the creation of a program designed specifically to assist traditionally disadvantaged students. This program would ultimately become the framework from which the Upward Bound program was born.
Dr. Roger Arliner Young
Despite the racism, sexism, and other barriers, Dr. Young became the first African American woman to receive a PhD in zoology. She was also the first African American woman to be published in the prestigious academic journal Science.
Photo Courtesy of Marine Biological Laboratory Archives
- Dr. Young was the first African American woman to receive a PhD in zoology and to conduct research at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.
- She first began her journey chasing a music degree until she took a biology course and chose to change her major. Just after she received her bachelor's in biology, Ernest Everett Just, seeing her potential, hired her on as an assistant professor at Howard while she continued graduate school.
- During her time at the University of Chicago, she published her first article on paramecium which received international acclaim. To this day this article is cited as an important piece of research for inveterate ecology.
- After receiving her MS in Zoology, she sought to earn her PhD, but due to life events she was unable to do so successfully - at the same time, due to unrelated issues she was dismissed from her duties at Howard. She ultimately published four more articles by 1938 and would eventually go on to complete her PhD in 1940 from the University of Pennsylvania.
- For the remainder of her life until her passing in 1964, Young would have a hard time holding a job at a college due to the pressures of being the only Black woman on staff.
- Some of her specific work includes studying the effects of direct and indirect radiation on sea urchin eggs, the structures that control the salt concentration in paramecium, and the hydration and dehydration of living cells.
- Chappelle began his career as a biochemist, and after receiving his bachelor's in biology in 1950, he began research into iron recycling by red blood cells and anaphylactic shock. This research led to many organizations attempting to recruit him for their graduate programs.
- During his graduate career, he studied proteins and amino acids. At the Research Institute for Advanced Students, Chappelle focused on ensuring that astronauts have safe, breathable air which led to him discover that if plants were sent up with astronauts, it severely reduced the likelihood of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- He also developed a means of detecting life on other planets by studying extraterrestrial soils for microbial life. To this end, Chappelle invented a method that used an adenosine triphosphate (ATP) fluorescent assay—a tool still used by scientists today. This method of detection works because all living things use ATP to generate energy. ATP is also what makes the enzyme luciferin and luciferase fluoresce or glow, thus causing a firefly to light up. When adding this enzyme to soils from other planets, the soil can glow and indicate microbial life is present in that soil and on that planet.
- Although this method has yet to actually detect life on another planet, it is used today for a variety of applications, from bacterial detection to measuring plant stress. This ability to measure plant stress is vital to how we manage crops today.
- In a marine biology context, Chappelle’s method for detection allows us to understand the levels of bacteria in water systems.
- In addition, Chappelle is also credited with discovering that even single-celled organisms can use photosynthesis, including organisms like algae and cyanobacteria.
Jasmin Graham is a co-founder of Minorities in Shark Science, an organization which aims to promote diversity and inclusion in shark science. Her research has allowed her to study the critically endangered small tooth sawfish and work as a member of the IUCN Shark Committee.
Photo Courtesy of Jasmin Graham
- Jasmin Graham began her journey in marine biology in high school, when she was able to take part in UNCW’s MarineQuest camp dedicated to teaching youths about marine science. There she fell in love with the field, and in college became entrenched in her passion for elasmobranch ecology. Some of her research includes small tooth sawfish movement ecology and hammerhead shark phylogeny.
- She is also currently a member of the IUCN Shark committee as well as a member of their Communications team.
- Though she has a passion for marine wildlife, she is equally passionate about making science more accessible to the public. She co-founded the organization Minorities in Shark Science (MISS), which aims to promote diversity and inclusion in shark science by encouraging and supporting women of color to join the field. She is also the project coordinator for the MarSci-LACE project, which focuses on researching and promoting best practices to recruit, support and retain minority students in marine science.
- “My driving motivation for everything I do, is that I want to leave the world better than I found it.” - Graham
Dr. Tiara Moore
Dr. Moore is the co-founder and current president of Black in Marine Science, an organization made for and by Black marine scientists in order to promote more opportunity and build community among its members and affiliates. Dr. Moore's research has also allowed her to develop a census for all biodiversity in Ellsworth Forest in Washington State.
Photo Courtesy of TiaraMoore.com
- Dr. Moore began her journey in marine biology after a trip to Costa Rica during her bachelor studies. By the time she completed her Masters's in Biology at Hampton University, she had studied how water quality is impacted by eutrophication (excess of nutrients) in the Chesapeake Bay.
- In addition, she studied marine sediments across the globe and what the meiofauna, microfauna and environmental DNA (eDNA) within these systems can tell us about their health. Her work with soil eDNA resulted in her developing a census of the biodiversity of Ellsworth Forest in Washington state, comparing species diversity across management treatments over the past 10 years.
- As part of efforts to create diversity within the field of marine science, Dr. Moore founded Black in Marine Science, initially as a celebration week to highlight and amplify black voices in the field and inspire younger generations. This celebration later turned into a community made by and for Black marine scientists. Dr. Moore also founded A Woman of Color (WOC) Space with the hope of making the workspace safe and inclusive for all women of color by mentoring, training, and supporting minority women.
- When Dr. Moore isn’t making the world a better place through her scientific and cultural advancements, she is making her community laugh through her Academic Stand Up shows.
Dr. Charles Henry Turner
Through his work in animal behavior, Dr. Turner discovered that animals - even insects - possess complex levels of cognitive ability. His studies revealed evidence that cockroaches are able to modify their behavior based on experience - this is what's known as "learning".
- An animal behavior scientist and early pioneer in the field of insect behavior, Dr. Turner is known for his work that showed evidence of insects being able to learn (demonstrated by modifying their behavior based on experience). Some of his discoveries include that cockroaches can learn by trial and error, and that honeybees are able to see visual patterns.
- He was also one of the first scientists to take note of the importance of controls and variables in experiments.
- Although Dr. Turner experienced much resistance throughout his 33-year career, he was still able to produce 70 papers, design apparatuses (such as mazes for roaches), conduct naturalist observations, and perform a variety of experiments studying insect behavior.
- Dr. Turner was also a lifelong civil rights activist, where he argued that only through education could the behavior of racists be changed. He also suggested that racism could be studied within the framework of comparative psychology.
Considered the mother of the environmental justice movement, Hazel Johnson was a trailblazer in the efforts to liberate her community, Chicago's South Side, from poor environmental living conditions that led to higher rates of cancer and other illnesses. These efforts led to the creation of the People for Community Recovery, which still operates today and is run by her youngest child, Cheryl Johnson.
Photo Courtesy of People for Community Recovery
- Native to Chicago, her activism began in her public housing community of Altgeld Gardens on the South Side. After her husband passed away from cancer in 1969, she noticed other folks in her community similarly suffered from cancer as well. She later discovered that the South Side had the highest cancer rates of any area in the city - when investigating the cause of this, she found that major contributing factors included how the community was built on a landfill and surrounded by toxicity from industrial buildings and sewage-treatment plants.
- Hazel founded the People for Community Recovery organization in 1979 to fight for a safer living environment. People for Community Recovery helped educate and empower Altgeld Gardens residents so they could advocate for improvements to the health conditions in their neighborhoods.
- Along with acting as a community advocate, Hazel Johnson also valued environmental justice on a global scale, including holding businesses and the government accountable for their impacts on the health of the natural world and communities. She eventually collaborated with the EPA as part of a team of activists who urged President Clinton to sign the Environmental Justice Executive Order.