Meet the Mid-Atlantic’s Organizers of Black in Marine Science
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The response was emphatic. Within days of that August 2020 tweet, Moore and a newly formed team were on their way to organizing a Black in Marine Science Week of webinars that celebrated and promoted the careers of scientists from around the country. It was so successful – not only in terms of attendees but sponsors -- that the group formed a full-fledged nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring more Black students enter the field and removing the professional barriers that confronted previous generations.

At Black in Marine Science’s (BIMS) core are three women with roots in the Mid-Atlantic region and longtime ties to each other and Moore dating back to their days as students at Hampton University in Virginia. They are Chief Learning Officer Symone Barkley, an environmental educator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore; Chief Innovation Officer Dr. Jeanette Davis, a children’s book author and marine environmental DNA (eDNA) researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Maryland; and Chief Financial Officer Dr. Camille Gaynus, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Recalling her early discussions with Moore about launching BIMS and getting involved, Gaynus said the decision was “an easy yes.” She believed strongly in the importance of what BIMS was about to do.

“I think we downplay how hard it can be to be the only minority in a certain space,” Gaynus said. “There are universities where you have one, maybe two people of color in a graduate program or in a lab space or postdoctoral position. We wanted to be, first and foremost, a support system. I want them to see there is a network for you, there are people you can reach out to who can help you reach those next steps.”

It's a role in which BIMS is increasingly striving to fill. For example, Gaynus noted that the group is contacted regularly with job listings, funding opportunities, and inquiries from outside organizations interested in improving the diversity of their staffs, all of which can be shared within the BIMS network.

The social media presence that initially drew BIMS attention has also been ramped up. The group now produces three regular video series highlighting the work of Black marine scientists – short profiles called #BIMSBites, educational pieces for youths called #BIMSBitesKids, and #BIMSDives, which take a deeper look at special topics.

“We didn’t want it to be limited to tweets and hashtags,” Davis said. “We really started thinking critically about what was needed. What do we want people to know? What will uplift and celebrate us?”

BIMS is now looking to the future and considering how else it can serve its audience. Black in Marine Science Week is here to stay, and could grow into an annual in-person conference when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. The group is also pursuing new partnerships with schools in disadvantaged communities that would enrich students’ classroom experiences and make them aware that marine science is a career they can pursue.

“I want those students who maybe don’t get opportunities to go to their local aquarium or zoo, or the bay or the ocean, to know that they can still be exposed to this work,” Barkley said. “Being a marine scientist doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be on a boat all of the time, and it’s good to let them know that. There’s also diversity in the field in terms of what your job is.”

Scroll below to learn more about the personal and professional journeys of Barkley, Davis and Gaynus as marine scientists.

Symone Barkley

BIMS Bites with Symone Barkley

Some of Symone Barkley’s fondest memories of growing up in South Baltimore’s Cherry Hill neighborhood were the days she and her grandmother walked down to Middle Branch Park. There she would look out over the Patapsco River, an industrial waterway connecting the city’s bustling marine terminals to the Chesapeake Bay, and wonder what lived in the waters. Today she knows well, and imparts that knowledge regularly to girls and boys in Baltimore who are the age she was then.

At the National Aquarium, located in the city’s Inner Harbor tourist district, Barkley manages education programs geared toward young people, including one called “What Lives in the Harbor.” Joining the aquarium staff was a homecoming of sorts for Barkley, who served in its Student Summer Volunteer Program while in high school.

It proved to be a formative experience. As part of the position, the aquarium provided her with a binder of information about marine life and habitats and stationed her at exhibits, where she would answer visitors’ questions. She loved the work and realized then that marine science was her calling. Barkley feels her work is especially meaningful because she sees her younger self in the children she teaches.

“It’s one of the reasons I do education now for Baltimore public school students, because I wanted them to have the opportunities and resources that I didn’t,” she said. “I wanted to come to a place where I can give back to the kids who were just like me in Baltimore – the little Symones.”

Barkley is also working with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) like Hampton to get more students with education or science majors involved with the aquarium’s educational activities. She said the greater diversity has made high-rated programs even more popular.

As a college student, Barkley participated in several research projects focused on marine life in the region’s waters. Among them were a study to determine the optimal algae species to be used during feeding in oyster aquaculture; the development of protocols for administering pesticides in areas where endangered species may live; and research on how blue crabs in Virginia’s Eastern Shore area respond to hypoxic conditions.


EFH Highly Migratory Species

As a graduate student at Delaware State, she studied the vulnerability of sand tiger sharks, a species that possesses a gulp-feeding mechanism which makes them more likely to be hooked internally – a mortal threat even if they’re released or break free from the line. The team surveyed recreational anglers in Delaware to learn more about the gear they use, how much they know about state fishing regulations, and how well they can identify various shark species. They experimented with the use of a piece of PVC on the line that made it difficult for the sharks to swallow the hook whole and found it to be effective.

“All shark species have low reproductive rates, but sand tigers are especially low,” Barkley said. “Any additional sources of mortality or injury are really significant, so we want to minimize those as much as we can. Adding that piece of PVC prevents them from being hooked internally.”

The map above indicates the concentrations of highly migratory species such as sharks, swordfish and tuna along our coast. Users can click any point on our interactive map for a pop-up listing which of these fish are known to roam in the vicinity. It shows sand tigers to be abundant along the Mid-Atlantic coast and around the mouth of the Delaware Bay.

Dr. Jeanette Davis

BIMS Bites with Jeanette Davis

She always thought she’d grow up to be a medical doctor. Jeanette Davis, aka “Dr. Ocean,” said that is a common expectation for young, science-inclined Black students, who tend to encounter few people of color in research science positions.

However, a campus visit to Hampton would change her view and career goals. There she made a fateful stop by the Marine Science Department and was surprised to learn how many branches of science – biology, chemistry, physics, meteorology – come into play in this field of study.

“I didn’t have an a-ha moment on the beach. I had an a-ha moment in college, before classes even started, and realized marine science was an available option and a science that encompasses so many different sciences,” Davis said. “That’s what I fell in love with.”

A student boat trip along the Chesapeake Bay would seal her interest. For a full month, Davis lived aboard 53-foot sailboat and studied the waters. She and a crew of 11 made stops along the way to visit with experts who shared lessons on the many contributions Blacks and Native Americans have made to the bay. In one visit to the University of Maryland, where she would later attend graduate school, a lecture on how medicines can be obtained from the sea further honed her aspirations.

“I had no idea I could combine my love of medicines and humanity with ocean science,” she said. “I wound up getting my Ph.D. in marine natural products discovery, or drug discovery.”

Today she works at NOAA’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, where she integrates science and policy, and helps to implement environmental DNA (eDNA) and molecular tools across marine research areas. eDNA has emerged as a tool for purposes ranging from drug research to the detection of invasive species, and holds promise to inform decisions on fisheries management and protections for marine areas.

“The same way a suspect may leave behind hair or blood, animals in marine environments are constantly shedding, whether their scales or skin. We can use that DNA in the water column to determine what’s present or not present without ever actually seeing it,” she said. “So I like to say, I’m CSI for the marine environment.”

The Wilmington, Delaware, native is also the author of a children’s book, “Science is Everywhere, Science is for Everyone,” which explores how science is ever-present in our daily lives. Davis said the idea to write the book came after she had trouble finding books that could answer her nieces’ and nephews’ questions about science that featured any people of color. She set out to produce works that would rectify that.

“I want to create literature to connect young people with science, so they can have the language to say, ‘I want to be a zoologist,’ or know that when they’re baking, that’s chemistry,” Davis said. “Allowing them to see the things in nature they love is science, but also with the component of having people of color, so everyone can see themselves in science.”

Dr. Camille Gaynus

Dr. Camille Gaynus has loved the water for as long as she can remember. As a preschooler in Philadelphia, she began taking swimming lessons and in time became a competitive swimmer. Today she is SCUBA-certified and dives off some of the most vibrant coral reefs on earth for her work.

As a high school intern in the University of Pennsylvania’s Teen Research and Education in Marine Science program, Gaynus gained her first exposure to the field and began to envision it as a possible career path. She recently returned to the university as a postdoctoral researcher and serves as a mentor for the program.

Her research work at Penn is focused on the health of reefs and algal communities that live within them. She began studying the subject as a graduate student at UCLA and was soon presented with an opportunity to join a team researching the reefs that ring the island of Mo’orea, located west of Tahiti in the South Pacific. The reefs are visible as a halo around Mo’orea in the satellite view above.

“Reefs are so important,” she said. “There’s estimates that one-third of fish in the ocean spend a portion of their life in a reef, so if you have reefs that aren’t doing well, you could have a collapse of fisheries globally.”

Beyond serving as critical habitats, Gaynus noted that reefs are instrumental for coastal resilience and economic stability, as they support industries such as eco-tourism. They are also under threat from a wide range of human impacts that are upsetting the balance of algal populations living within them.

“My question is now, how are changes that we know are happening, due to overfishing, due to changes in nutrient regimes, affecting the diversity of algae in reefs?” she said.

At Mo’orea, scientists have been recording a trove of data since 2005 for parameters including daily meteorological conditions, water temperatures, nutrient levels in the ocean and much more, Gaynus said. This provides the researchers with the advantage of understanding what the baseline conditions are when the reef communities are healthy, so when there’s a sudden change, they can better pinpoint the factors that are driving it.

While Gaynus was on the island, the reefs went through a bleaching event that killed off the corals and exposed the hard substrate they live in. She collected samples of the branches and is now conducting analysis in her Philadelphia lab to determine what was living in them and how they may have been impacted by nutrients in the waters or other factors. She is also comparing the bleached sections of reef to unbleached areas around the island to see how the microbial communities living in them are different.

“Hard substrate in a reef is a hot commodity – it gets taken up quickly,” she said. “There’s not a lot of it, so when you have corals dying, [marine organisms] have an opportunity. Typically algae is the first thing to colonize it.”

Story by: Karl Vilacoba, Monmouth University Urban Coast Institute. He can be reached at kvilacob@monmouth.edu.