The black lives of marine biology

Written by Joe Baker

On the 25th May 2020, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, after a white police officer, Dereck Chauvin, knelt on his neck for almost 9 minutes straight. This event, which has sparked worldwide protests and re-invigorated the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as countless other cases of police brutality have displayed the perpetration of systemic racism deeply entrenched in not only American society, but across the globe. The unjust treatment of minorities is so widespread and historic that even an academic field such as marine biology, which relies on scientific and universal truths, has been severely affected by the oppression of and prejudice against people of colour. This article looks at the contributions of black scientists to marine biology and in particular the very first black marine biologist Ernest Everrett Just, whose story is still representative of mistreatment and under-representation which still plagues the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) today.

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The black lives matter movement has gained significant traction and exposure since the death of George Floyd

Born in 1883 in South Carolina, Ernest Everrett Just and his family were faced with the harsh realities of race relations, where emerging Jim Crow laws and widespread disenfranchisement cemented minorities status as second-class citizens. Yet against the odds, Just was able to graduate from Dartmouth College with honours in Zoology and subsequently began teaching English at Howard University in 1907. It was not until two years later that he was finally able to get a job doing what he really loved, when he began working during his summers as a research assistant at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at the Woods Hole Institute in Massachusetts.

It was during his summers at MBL that Just became a leading authority on marine eggs and invertebrates. His first high profile research was centred around the eggs of common sand dollars, Echinarachnius Parma, and sea urchins, where he disproved earlier claims that fertilization could occur without the presence of sperm. His extensive research showed that a lack of a standard universal methodology had created a number of inaccurate results in the field. Instead he proved that it is the reacting biological system that is important, not what is applied to it, displaying the need for both the egg and sperm to be present for fertilization. Just went on to publish two books in 1939, entitled Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Animals and The Biology of the Cell Surface, both of which provided valuable information to future aspiring marine biologists.

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E.E. Just working at the MBL at Woods Hole

Due to his research, Just was the inaugural recipient of the Springarn Medal in 1915, awarded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His contributions to the scientific community were seen by the organisation to be crucial in mending race relations in the early 20th Century. Kenneth Manning author of Black Apollo of Science, a biography on E.E. Just published in 1983, argued that Just’s scientific achievements were used by the NAACP to exemplify black contributions to society because – “Scientific truth could be denied by no one, white or black. If this was the first time the whole world was to know of the achievements of blacks, then those achievements should be as universal as possible.”

Yet it was because of his race that E.E. Just was unable to make further significant advancements in the scientific community. Although he held a lecturing post at Howard University, this was only because no other major universities in the US would hire him to teach on account of the colour of his skin. Frustrated with the lack of opportunity afforded to him, in 1928 he went to Italy to research at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples to advance his understanding of marine animals. He frequented Europe because of the compatibility of his research to many places on the continent, such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin where he was the first American to be invited.

Just also enjoyed Europe because he felt that he did not encounter as much racism as he had in the US. Unfortunately this didn’t last. In 1933 he was forced out of Berlin by the Nazis and took up residence in France, only to be captured as a prisoner of war 6 years later when Germany invaded the country. The treatment he received during his time as a POW was so brutal that it took years off his life and he died quickly after his return to the US in 1941, due to his undiagnosed pancreatic cancer which had spread widely whilst being held captive.

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Roger Arliner Young, a student of E.E. Just, was the first African American woman to gain a PhD in Zoology

Although systemic racism and prejudice held back Just from reaching the heights he could have, it did not stop him from inspiring a long line of black role models who have revolutionised the field of marine biology. Just himself was a mentor for Roger Arliner Young, who began as a research assistant at MBL in 1927. Whilst at Woods Hole she investigated the process of hydration and dehydration of living cells, the effect of radiation on sea urchin eggs, and the structures that control salt concentration in paramecium. She also became the first African American women to gain a PhD in Zoology, opening the door not just for black students but female ones too. She was an assistant professor at Howard University for 12 years before moving to North Carolina to teach at Shaw University and the North Carolina College for Negroes, inspiring future generations to become involved in marine science.

Another MBL alumni was Samuel Milton Nabrit who studied tail fin regeneration in injured fish. He also became the first black student to receive a PhD from Brown University in 1932. He later taught at Atlanta University and became head of Texas Southern University and was even appointed to both President Eisenhower’s National Science Board in 1956 and President Johnson’s Atomic Energy Commission in 1966. He was also a committed civil rights activist and during his tenure at Texas Southern, no students were expelled for participation in civil rights demonstrations. Nabrit not only inspired black students to study marine biology, but he was also very influential in creating opportunities for future black scientists through his various administrative roles and civil rights campaigning.

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Samuel Nabrit was a well respected scientist not just in the black or marine biology communities, but across America

The 1970s saw rise to one of the most influential black marine biologists, Robert Kent Trench who studied at the University of the West Indies, Oxford, and UCLA where he earned his Zoology doctorate in 1969. He went on to teach at Yale for 4 years, then moving to UC Santa Barbara where he retired in 2000. During his time at Santa Barbara he garnered a reputation as one of the world’s leading experts on the symbiotic relationship between corals and photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae, in which corals provide the plankton shelter and CO2 in return for energy derived from sunlight. This work alongside his research into kleptochloroplasts won him the prestigious Miescher-Ishida Prize for his contribution to the field of biology in 1994. He was also a prominent member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society of Limnology and Oceanography.

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Robert Trench was one of the world’s foremost experts on the relationship between corals and zooxanthellae

Yet despite all the progress black scientists have made in marine biology, they have continued to face setbacks and remained underrepresented in the field. In 2018 a resurfaced photograph from the International Conference on the Biology of Whales in 1971 highlighted this. It shows 37 white male scientists and one partially obscured black woman, who was labelled as ‘not identified’. After a lengthy search she was eventually identified as Sheila Minor, a biological technician who had a stellar 35-year career in which she held positions with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and the Smithsonian. It highlighted the problems still facing fields such as marine biology, where black scholars and researchers have been historically pushed to the background of scientific memory.

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The photo from the International Conference on the Biology of Whales in 1971, with an unidentified and partially obscured Sheila Minor (circled)

The scientists discussed in this article have inspired multiple generations of young black people to get involved in fields like marine biology, but the historical roots of exclusion they faced continue to persist and deny black people the opportunities to become involved in academic careers. The lack of diversity in STEM jobs seems astounding when fields such as the sciences are based in reason and objectivity. The systemic racism highlighted by recent protests and exemplified by these scientists’ experiences, shows us the need for drastic change to be made. To do this it is important that we each continue to educate ourselves and others on the complexity of discrimination in our society, a task that was just as important to E.E. Just as his research or teaching. This is summed up best in Kenneth Manning’s book about Just, where he writes it is essential “for everyone to achieve a level of expression capable of making a complex issue comprehensible to a simple mind.”

Joe has recently completed a BA in History at the University of Exeter. His dissertation focused on the symbiotic relationship between the Ku Klux Klan and the media and is passionate in exposing trends between hate group popularity and media publicity. If you have any inquiries you can email him at jmpbaker@outlook.com.

If you have an ocean story to tell then Marine Madness is here to help you tell it. If you would like to contribute check out the submission guidelines here.

A message from the editor – A big thank you to Joe for tackling such a complex and important issue in this article. I would just like to take a moment to emphasise that Marine Madness fully stands behind the Black Lives Matter movement and believes in true equality for everyone regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexuality or disability. As someone who has studied marine biology and had first-hand experience in the world of STEM, I can attest that although things have gotten much better and are improving all the time, there is still much more that needs to be done. It is therefore important to continue to discuss these issues and educate ourselves and I hope this is just the first step in doing so on this site. If anyone has experiences or problems regarding inequality in the field that they want to share, then please get in contact. Thank You! – Harry Baker (creator & editor)


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