Historical Trail Blazers and Rising Stars in Marine Science
By Cheyenne Palmo
Whether it be the expansion of knowledge on deep-sea coral species or the modern usage of online mapping tools, Black and African American scientists have been part of the equation in propelling marine science to new levels. Here we recount some of their achievements throughout history as NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries celebrates African American History Month. We highlight three scientists who were pioneers within their fields and paved the way for modern day marine scientists, and introduce three scientists currently conducting research that improves our knowledge and ability to manage resources in marine sanctuaries.
Building a Body of Knowledge
Dr. Roger Arliner Young
Dr. Roger Arliner Young was the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in zoology and to publish research in the fields of zoology and marine biology. Her career as a marine biologist studying the structural biology in single-celled organisms took off when she met her mentor – Dr. Ernest Everett Just – who took Young under his wing at Howard University, later continuing their work together at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole. Young’s academic career was not without struggle – she failed her qualifying exams for her PhD at the University of Chicago, lost a professor position at Howard University, and her professional relationship with Dr. Just dwindled. Dr. Young, passionate about her work, took her initial failure and used it as motivation. She attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned her PhD. She went on to teach zoology at multiple institutions for the remainder of her career, navigating her way through racism, sexism, and mental health challenges.Today she is regarded as a pioneer in the fields of zoology and marine biology.
Dr. Robert Trench
Dr. Robert Trench holds a reputation as the world’s leading expert on corals and their symbiotic relationships with microscopic algae (zooxanthellae.) Dr. Trench earned his PhD in invertebrate zoology from the University of California at Los Angeles. He continued his career in academia as a professor at both Yale University and University of California at Santa Barbara. Outside of the lecture hall, Dr. Trench conducted research that strengthened our understanding of coral reef ecology, marine biochemistry, and the evolutionary history of symbiotic relationships. Dr. Trench has not only published multiple successful scientific articles, but has also served as the editor for one of the most influential pieces of marine ecology text – “Innovative Methods of Marine Ecosystem Restoration.” Now retired, Dr. Trench serves as an advisor for the Global Coral Reef Alliance. His contributions to the coral reef ecology field have helped in both the preservation and restoration of these valuable marine habitats.
Dr. Joan Murrell Owens
Dr. Joan Murrell Owens grew up in Miami, Florida, and attended a public segregated high school, where the resources in science classrooms were either lacking or nonexistent. Even with limited access to laboratory experience and research opportunities, Dr. Owens beat the odds and eventually dedicated her education to the sciences. She received a bachelor’s of fine arts from Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee, and later returned to school at the age of 37, eventually earning her bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees in Geology from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She wanted to pursue her passion in marine science, however, she carried the gene for sickle cell anemia, a red blood cell disorder that disproportionately affects African Americans, which made scuba diving to research corals unrealistic. Instead, she researched coral collections at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. She explored a new genus and studied and classified multiple new species of deep sea corals. She eventually became an associate professor at Howard University, and her career in deep-sea button coral research proved to be one of the most successful and informative of the time.
Developing Practical Science Applications
Dr. Dawn Wright
Dr. Dawn Wright knew she wanted to pursue oceanography by the time she was just eight years old. Growing up in Hawaii with her mother, she developed a passion for the natural world, especially the ocean. She attended her mother’s alma mater, earning a bachelor's degree in geology from Wheaton College in Illinois. She continued her studies, earning her master’s in oceanography from Texas A&M and her PhD in physical geography and marine geology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. After attaining her PhD, Wright joined NOAA as a postdoctoral research associate. Her involvement in academia continued for the next 17 years; Dr. Wright not only taught at Oregon State University, but she built the geographic information systems (GIS) program and mentored 24 doctoral students at the institution as well. Now Dr. Wright is the chief scientist at Esri, one of the world's largest digital mapping firms. In this position, she continues to contribute to the oceanographic and GIS fields. Dr. Wright has mapped the ocean floor around the globe for coastal and ocean use planning, including in National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. Additionally, she has been a key contributor in building the ocean basemap on the Esri platform – a highly-detailed ocean floor map that includes bathymetric data, feature and water body names, and seafloor depth data. GIS is a new and quickly growing field and Dr. Wright is committed to promoting diversity in the GIS world.
Dr. Richard Coleman
Dr. Richard Coleman entered the marine science field on an unconventional timeline. After graduating high school, Coleman worked as a consumer loan officer for seven years until the financial crisis of 2007-2008 left him without a job. Determined to pursue a career in the natural world, he completed community college and transferred to San Francisco State University (SFSU) as a first generation college student. At SFSU, Coleman worked as an undergraduate research student in the marine ecology department. Little did he know that a summer research opportunity would pave the way for the rest of his marine biology career. Coleman received his PhD in zoology from the University of Hawaii’s Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, focusing on ecology, evolution and conservation biology. During his graduate studies, he received the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship and visited Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument on three different month long studies. Coleman recounted the beauty of the “remote, pristine habitat and in-tact corals” at the monument. Now, as a postdoctoral fellow for the University of Central Florida, his research interests focus on the drivers of diversity and dispersal in marine organisms, specifically marine fishes. Coleman understands the importance of representation of people of color in science. “I try to take every opportunity to be visible in front of communities similar to the one I grew up in” Coleman says. In doing so, he leads by example in showing that careers in marine biology are an option for everyone.
Dr. Nikki Traylor-Knowles
Dr. Nikki Traylor-Knowles knew from a very young age that she wanted to be a marine biologist. Initially interested in sharks, she attended Johns Hopkins University for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cellular and molecular biology. An opportunity to research corals quickly altered her academic trajectory away from sharks, and onto invertebrates, and she later earned her PhD in biology from Boston University. Now, she continues her career as a professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Her lab’s research focuses on the cellular mechanisms of immunity in corals. Conveniently based in Florida, Dr. Traylor-Knowles has conducted research in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, hypothesizing that coral immune system response plays a role in the distribution of stony coral tissue loss disease. Now as a successful professor, she constantly tells her students - “Forget the naysayers. If you’re really passionate about something, follow through with it.”
Cheyenne Palmo is an AmeriCorps environmental education and stewardship specialist at Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, located in Port Angeles, Washington.
Editor's note: This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of famous Black marine scientists, but rather, a small selection in celebration of African American History Month.