There are so many different ways we can get to where we are in science, but only so many accepted narratives. I am a marine biologist, but I never felt comfortable sharing with most people in my field why I was interested in marine biology, largely because it never seemed like a common or legitimate narrative. My story was never their story. Not even close.
The majority of people I met in undergrad and graduate school who were also planning on being marine biologists or marine scientists had a specific set of traits that made up their narratives:
- They grew up by the ocean.
- They went tide-pooling often.
- They went out on boat trips often.
- They had even lived on houseboats.
- They loved the organisms they saw while fishing.
- They loved the organisms they saw while surfing.
- They loved the organisms they saw while snorkeling or SCUBA diving.
- They had scientist parents or their parents were academics.
- They wanted to be like Jacques Cousteau.
- They loved going to the aquarium and went often.
- They volunteered/interned at aquaria.
- They were white.
These traits were so commonplace that I never wanted to share my story, why I was interested in marine biology.
I grew up in L.A. West L.A. Inglewood. Crenshaw. Culver City. Hawthorne/Lawndale. . . . We moved around a lot, but always within L.A. As a little black girl I went to the beach, mostly in Marina Del Rey. Didn't see tide pools, didn't see fish, just flat beaches with lots of people. My parents took me to SeaWorld when I was about six and I loved it. I remember the sea stars and urchins in the touch tanks the most. But that is all. We never went to aquariums, never went to see tide pools, did not go out on boats (with the exception of my aunt's wedding, which took place on a boat).
As I got older we didn't really go to the beach much anymore, if at all. I spent my time in our apartment, playing, reading, watching TV. Or I played outside, ran around, rode bikes, or skated around urban, concrete jungles with other black kids my age. Played hide-and-go-seek in gated apartment complexes. Flipped on old, abandoned mattresses, hopped over old cars and fences, and watched my boy friends (not boyfriends) pretend to run away from the po-po. “Practice for the future,” my one friend would say to me.
One day, when I was eleven, I was watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and Reading Rainbow at my grandmother's house after school like I always did. Every day. I loved science shows and loved Bill Nye. When I was in the upper single digits I watched Mr. Wizard early in the morning while waiting for my grandfather to take me to school, but he had nothing on Bill Nye when he came around. I also loved reading and had watched Reading Rainbow for years. Some might say that, at eleven, I was a little old to be watching Reading Rainbow, but I didn't care, I loved the show. But this day of after-school educational TV watching was different.
At that moment I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wanted to be a marine biologist.
This day, LeVar Burton was talking about something I hadn't heard of before. The entire episode highlighted kids/youth books related to the ocean and LeVar was on a boat being taught about marine organisms by marine biologists. I was fascinated. Completely mesmerized by all the different creatures and all the different things the scientists were studying. LeVar and the scientists talked about the importance of studying the organisms and keeping the ocean free of pollution. There was something different about their discussion of the organisms in the ocean, about their explanations of ocean processes. Maybe it was their enthusiasm. Or maybe it was LeVar's enthusiasm at learning and sharing his experience with us kids at home. Not only were they highlighting the science, but they were highlighting the people behind the science, the people doing the research and conserving. At that moment I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wanted to be a marine biologist.
After that, whenever anyone asked what I wanted to be, I said marine biologist. People didn't always understand why, especially when we moved to Las Vegas (i.e., the desert) after I started high school, but they thought it was cool or interesting in that "sure, kid, whatever you say" sort of way. But I could never really say what made me choose this path. I didn't really feel that Reading Rainbow was a legitimate reason. Nor did I have any other reasonable reason, like frequenting the aquarium, or knowing a lot about fish. So I'd say I liked watching ocean-themed nature shows and wanted to learn more about marine life, which was true, but I never felt that was good enough.
Unlike my classmates, I hadn't seen many of the marine organisms we saw in labs in person before. Up to that point I'd only seen them on TV or in books.
Fast-forward to college, where every marine biology major was a) white and b) gave one of the aforementioned listed reasons for wanting to be a marine biology major. Then there was me, who hadn't been to an aquarium since she was a little kid, who didn't dive or snorkel, who hadn't taken a marine biology class in high school, who hadn't spent family camping trips along the coast. Who, unlike my classmates, hadn't seen many of the marine organisms we saw in labs in person before. Up to that point I'd only seen them on TV or in books. The worst part was when someone in some marine/aquatic bio class would make a reference to Jacques Cousteau. Everyone would ooh and aah, or give that nod of understanding while I had no idea who this person was. All I could do, given the context, was assume he was someone important in marine biology and the inspiration to many of my classmates and professors. But it was one of those things I knew I could never ask about. Doing so would prove that I did not belong in those classes, that I had no business trying to be a scientist, let alone a marine biologist. So I nodded in pseudo-understanding along with them.
We went on a camping trip for my invertebrate zoology class. I, unlike most of my peers, had never gone camping before. Luckily, I had a friend in the class who helped me with this—she made me feel less out of place with some gear and tips and tricks for camping. I was grateful for that. Grateful because I spent a lot of time in undergrad trying to remind myself that there was nothing wrong with having such a different background from my peers and that I was just as capable.
After doing research in a marine molecular physiology lab during my last two years of undergrad, I was hooked. I decided to go to graduate school to further study marine biology. One of the things that stuck out most at this point was the fact that I did not know how to SCUBA dive like most of my peers (I'm actually still not certified as it wasn't imperative for my research). How could I be a real marine biologist and not know how to SCUBA dive?
I did a lot of science outreach in graduate school. I'd done some in undergrad, but really delved into it in my graduate school years. I was always very drawn to working with students who did not always have the means or opportunity to engage in activities and/or learning that their more affluent peers could partake in. I was also driven by the lack of diversity in science, environmental sciences especially, and wanted to show kids who looked liked younger versions of myself that there were people who looked like them in these fields. But working with these outreach programs and being one of the few people of color in charge had its own ups and downs.
I would listen to them talk about those "poor, urban kids" who didn't have many outdoor experiences and how it was a "shame" that "those kids" don't know x or y about nature/environment/oceans.
A meeting with the organizers was always an experience, to say the least. On more than one occasion I would listen to them talk about those "poor, urban kids" who didn't have many outdoor experiences and how it was a "shame" that "those kids" don't know x or y about nature/environment/oceans. On one such occasion, I remember sitting around the conference table during an organizational meeting and the organizers were sharing stories of what it was like to take "those kids" out into the woods to go camping.
"They were scared of the birds!"
"They didn't know there'd be lots of bugs! They were so jumpy!"
"They complained about getting dirty!"
"They'd never been camping before, can you imagine? It's such a shame."
All I could do was sit there in silence. Yes, I could imagine being a teen and not having gone camping. I could imagine being jumpy at all the new animal noises. I could imagine how different the experience would be for these kids because it was for me when I first went camping at age twenty. I knew what those kids were going through. I could more than imagine this. But not the other organizers. These organizers who grew up in suburbs, who came from homes that had the means to go camping, hiking, boating, tide-pooling, and snorkeling. They had no sense of what it was like for these kids. I remember loathing those meetings because I was one of "those kids" and did not feel as deficient as they were making them/us seem. There was little room for genuinely appreciating varied (read: non-urban, non-middle class, and non-white) upbringings and backgrounds.
As kids from lower-income urban environments, we learned different, but equally valuable, things. We knew how to survive in our surroundings.
As kids from lower-income urban environments, we learned different, but equally valuable, things. Us urban kids may not have pitched tents regularly, may not have been able to identify poison ivy, or may not have known the location of the nearest river, but we knew and understood the workings of the urban environment. We knew how to navigate our urban terrain, by foot, bike, skates, or any modes of public transportation. Knew where to get what we needed and how to get it. Were exposed to a diversity of people and cultures and understood the nuanced social politics of the city's neighborhoods. We understood the intricate dynamics of the urban environment. . . . We knew how to survive in our surroundings. But because this was not in nature, it was not deemed valuable information, not ever by these organizers. Even if they understood the varied perspectives that urban students/kids had, they did not use language that suggested that they valued these skills and experiences, and language is everything.
I would often be asked, "What made you decide to go to college? And grad school?" As the questions about my motivations to go to college or grad school often occurred during outreach activities, or in general situations when the topics of race, lower-income urban communities, or the lack of diversity came up, I understood them to be thinly veiled microaggressions and inquiries into what they really wanted to know—"What made you as a black woman from an urban background decide to go to college when so many of you don't?" What made me so "different”? This true intent always became apparent when my peers (predominantly white) were never asked the same questions.
On top of this were the questions of "What inspired you to study marine biology? When did I know?" Again, I could not tell the truth, so I always made something up, or gave a vague answer about always being interested in the ocean. How could I be a legitimate PhD student with Reading Rainbow as my inspiration?
Something like less than 0.5 percent of PhDs are held by black women scientists. Once I really digested this information I began to rethink how I saw myself in my field.
Later in graduate school, after all the daily realizations that I was one of so few in my field, I started researching just how few. I love looking at data and figures, so I would sit and sift through university and National Science Foundation demographic data for women, people of color, and specifically black women in the sciences with PhDs. The number was ridiculously small—something like less than 0.5 percent of PhDs are held by black women scientists. I'm sure the percentage of black, female, PhD-holding marine biologists/scientists is even smaller.
Once I really digested this information I began to rethink how I saw myself in my field, with my peers, in my department and so on. Yes, there wasn't much diversity in my field. Yes, my background didn't look much like my peers', but there is some strength in that, some power. I also began to realize that I could be completely legitimate. That I was completely legitimate. That that little urban black girl who only saw marine organisms on TV or in books could grow up and be a legitimate marine biologist. That she could hopefully someday soon teach other people about topics in marine biology. I began to embrace the aspects of my trajectory and narrative that were different from my peers and the typical acknowledged trajectories.
Sometimes I wonder where I'd be if I hadn't seen that one episode of Reading Rainbow. What would have happened had LeVar Burton not showcased marine biologists? I feel as though I owe him a thank you. For exposing a city kid like me, and all those other kids, to this amazing career. I am also no longer shy about admitting that it was his show that inspired me.
LaTisha Hammond spends part of her days thinking about and doing research in science education. The rest of the time she dabbles in other things.
Photo by Rachel Nuwer.