It is Shark Week – the time of the year where the Discovery Channel dedicates its entire content to sharks and their relatives (skates and rays). For many shark researchers, this week is an emotional roller coaster, defined by excitement for the potential educational opportunity and disappointment by the misinformation and sensationalized content. Consistently among its major critiques is the fact that each year, only a few of over 500 known shark species are featured; naturally, these are the perceived “man-eaters”, including the notorious great white shark. This skewed focus serves only to contribute to the existing stigma of sharks as being dangerous. Simultaneously, it limits collective understanding of why these animals are important, and potentially prevents public support for their conservation.
Of greater and increasing concern, however, is that this lack of diversity in showcased shark species is paralleled in the selection of researchers chosen to reflect the shark science community. With a few exceptions, Shark Week highlights scientists of almost entirely a single demographic: white and male. Yet as the shark community notes, the notable absence of women and underrepresented minorities is misleading. It perpetuates the perception of a male-dominated “shark bro” culture while ignoring significant groups within the field. Fortunately, as Shark Week airs, a new organization has emerged to “break the mold and change the world.”
In June of 2020, Minorities in Shark Science (MISS) was launched as a group dedicated to creating a more inclusive scientific field. Founded by four Black women scientists (see more about their story here), its aim is twofold: to create a community of scientists of color, and to help aspiring researchers overcome financial barriers that may prevent access to the field of shark science. To accomplish this, women of color* specifically can apply for membership to MISS and take advantage of opportunities to gain funded research and professional development experiences. Since its inception, MISS has experienced near immediate success. The organization already has over 65 members representing 11 different countries. Furthermore, thanks to its donors, MISS will be leading two spring workshops for undergraduate students in collaboration with the Field School. In addition to hands-on field experience, the workshop will provide long-term access to a continued resource and support system. If the instant community formed by MISS is any indication, this is a welcome development in the field of shark science.
* importantly, MISS recognizes that race and gender are social constructs. The organization states: “if you want to be part of this group, we have a place for you.”
The founders, all of whom now form the MISS Executive Board, are enthusiastic about the organization’s recent growth. Jasmin Graham, who is also project coordinator for the MarSci-LACE project with the Mote Marine Lab, says, “We are really excited about how fast MISS has grown in a few short weeks and we hope we can keep the momentum going. We also hope we can uplift and amplify all of the WOC [women of color] in shark science. Now that the organization has grown we are hoping we can use it as a platform to show all of the cool research being done by our members.” Co-founder Amani Webber-Schultz, currently a Fellow at the Field School, agrees. “None of us founders had that when we got into shark science so being able to give that to someone is rewarding and exciting.”
Between Webber-Schultz and Graham, the process of becoming a shark scientist differed in many ways, but featured similar trends that led them to create MISS. Webber-Schultz grew up in the San Francisco Bay area where she was exposed to the organisms she would eventually study, but it wasn’t until her junior year in college that she realized what most interested her. “Sharks were always on my radar, but when I was younger I didn’t realize that was a career you could actually do….[in college] I applied for a scholarship at Field School in Miami to do their one-week shark research course, and I loved it. It was the most fun I’ve had doing a job, ever.”
Graham was initially connected to the ocean for sustenance rather than science. Her childhood featured frequent fishing trips with her family in South Carolina. In high school she realized she could study fish as a scientific career, after her parents sent her to marine science camp. “I loved it, and that was when I realized that you could do ocean science as a career, and get paid to do it…I started investigating that and decided to go to school for marine biology.”
Notably, both researchers relied heavily on guidance from mentors – a resource they want to provide to others via MISS. Graham, for example, attributes her current position “getting excited through osmosis,” catching the “shark bug” from the senior researchers with whom she surrounded herself. Webber-Schultz found similarly impactful mentors, both at the Field School and beyond. However, she notes that these role models appeared “late in life” and were hard to identify in her childhood. “I didn’t have any role models, really. I think I didn’t know of that many people outside of men in the field.” Furthermore, she and the other founders were all too familiar with the feeling of being the only Black person in all-white spaces, particularly academic settings. Webber-Schultz felt this weight from a very young age. “There’s one thing that sticks in my mind that happened when I was younger. In kindergarten, I was the only Black kid in my class…. I went home, as a kindergartner, and told my parents I didn’t want to go to college because I didn’t want to be the only Black person.” Representation matters, she explains, because it could have impacted her decision to pursue educational opportunities long-term. “I always like to bring that up because I think a lot of people have a tendency, especially with MISS now, to doubt how serious it is, especially if you don’t experience it. It should really resonate with you that a kindergartner says, ‘I don’t want to do something because I don’t want to be the only one’.”
Even as accomplished early career researchers, the MISS founders continued to face tremendous pressure as often the only Black women in their local academic communities. “When I walked into the marine science department, I was always aware that I didn’t pass anyone that wasn’t white,” Webber-Schultz says. Graham agrees, describing the heaviness and mental strain that she still experiences daily. “I don’t think people realize how much work it is to be a scientist, and be worried about doing your research, but also have to carry this extra baggage of being a woman and being Black in America,” she says. “Because I’m a Black woman in an almost all white, male space, I am representing all Black women at all times. I’m never just me.” According to Graham, this sentiment was one of the driving forces behind the creation of MISS. “I feel like people who aren’t in that position don’t understand. It’s really exhausting to explain to someone why you’re so tired and upset. That’s why we wanted to create this network, to say: ‘You’re not the only one who feels like this.’”
While providing this support for women scientists of color, MISS is also helping current and future scientists overcome logistical barriers critical to networking and research experience. Many early career research opportunities are either unpaid or, in some cases, actually require volunteers or interns to pay for the experience themselves. As Graham and Webber-Schultz explain, this system serves only to exclude “tons of brilliant minds”. “When people say that science is a meritocracy, they aren’t looking at the whole picture if they decide merit equates to number of research experiences,” Graham says. “Students without financial means (disproportionately people of color and first-generation students) are stuck in a catch-22 where they can’t afford to get most internships/research experiences, which means they are never picked for paid internships.” Webber-Schultz adds, “Financial instability is something that impacts everyone no matter their race. That being said, in this country especially, minorities are disproportionally affected by financial burdens and barriers. So, when it comes to un-paid internships/volunteer opportunities, there’s a whole group of people who can’t apply. If you have to pay for experience, but don’t have the means to do that, how are you supposed to get into this field?”
To combat this inequity, MISS workshops are fully funded, covering travel, lodging, and research costs for participants. Any woman of color (18+) interested in shark science can apply, if they have not yet had the opportunity to do research or fieldwork (note: applicants do not have to be US citizens, but they do have to have medical insurance in the US). MISS also plans to expand its reach through a variety of other platforms and events, including K-12 outreach “We want to show [students] early on that they can be a shark researcher,” Webber-Schultz says. To aid in this mission and support the organization, members and non-members alike are encouraged to donate. Graham also asks researchers or institutions to get in touch if they are in a position to recruit students. “A lot of times people say they don’t have diversity in their programs because they don’t get a diverse pool of applicants where they are. Email us, we can facilitate getting your program in front of a diverse pool of applicants.” Those interested should reach out to MISS directly via its website.
For now, if you are currently engaging in Shark Week 2020, it is worth considering that such publicized television events are doing little to assist the organization in achieving its goals. “This week is arguably the most publicity our field of research gets in a single year, and you’d think the producers would want to showcase more of the amazing research, discoveries, and scientists but they don’t… You can’t have one or two women appear the whole week or have one or two BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] appear the whole week and call that diversity; it’s not. The lack of effort to represent the broad spectrum of shark researchers is blatantly obvious,” Webber-Schultz says. Graham feels similarly. “There are HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities], HSIs [Hispanic-serving institutions], and other minority serving institutions that [producers] could be reaching out to; instead, they go to the same people and their friends…There are so many women in shark science just being totally ignored.” Graham also highlights the sense of appropriation perpetuated by Shark Week. “Why are they getting these people from the same countries over and over? There are scientists in the West Indies, Caribbean, Africa, and South America doing great work that could really use the funding and backing that comes with getting in the public eye. When they do film shows in these places, they fly international researchers out there. Why? There are local scientists doing the work there already! Put them on camera, give them a show!”
As the MISS founders warn, the lack of appropriate representation both here and in other spaces will continue to prevent underrepresented researchers from joining the shark science community. Consequently, there will remain little change in those who remain most visible in the field. “It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that I am ready to obliterate,” Graham says. “Hence the creation of MISS.” Thanks to the awareness and action created by this organization, perhaps the Shark Week of the future will look a little different.
For more resources on why diversity is important in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math):
- NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast: “Creativity And Diversity: How Exposure To Different People Affects Our Thinking”
- Freeman et al. 2015: “Collaborating with People Like Me: Ethnic Co-Authorship within the U.S”
- C&EN: “Helping students (re)think of themselves as scientists”
For more resources on how to pursue a research career (shark-related or otherwise):
Alexandra McInturf (@AGMcInturf) is a fourth year PhD candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis, and the current editor-in-chief of The Ethogram. A proud female shark scientist, her work focuses on animal movement and sociality, particularly in sharks and their relatives. She is passionate about marine conservation and science communication.
[Editors: Allison Lau and Karli Chudeau]