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A Diversity of Geoscientists

New Woods Hole program encourages underrepresented groups

Source: Oceanus Magazine

The statistics are stark: From 1973 to 2003, only 313 Hispanic Americans, 135 African Americans, and 49 Native Americans earned Ph.D. degrees in geosciences. That’s a sprinkle in the ocean compared with the more than 21,000 people in that time span who received Ph.D.’s in geosciences.

The dearth of minorities in the fields, which includes earth, ocean and atmospheric science, was reported in a 2005 American Geophysical Union study. But it was old news to the community of geosciences research institutions remarkably congregated in Woods Hole, Mass. In 2004, the leaders of six institutions—the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), and Sea Education Association (SEA)—pledged to work together to attract and retain a more diverse workforce.

This summer, they coordinated a new program that specifically encourages underrepresented groups, and brought 16 science students from 11 colleges to Woods Hole for a four-week course on environmental and ocean science taught by scientists from all the institutions. Then the students continued on, doing research internships with Woods Hole scientists.

“There’s no other model for this program, because there’s not another Woods Hole anywhere,” said Ambrose Jearld of NEFSC, who heads the advisory committee for the Woods Hole Science Community Diversity Initiative signed in 2004. “We have six institutions, all very different: small and big, government and private, aquatic and other environmental. It’s a unique community.”

A subcommittee led by NEFSC’s George Liles, aquarium director of the Woods Hole Aquarium, worked for a year to design what is now the Partnership Education Program, or PEP. “Consciously deciding to be diverse is hard to do,” he said. “Our program is really unusual. I’m not aware of any other program where such diverse institutions came together to do this.”

“I call it a stone soup program,” said Liles, recalling the folk tale of travelers who put a stone in a pot of boiling water and persuade villagers one by one to throw in nourishing and delicious ingredients.

NEFSC and NOAA contributed the majority of funding for PEP. Ben Gutierrez of USGS recruited scientists and organized the course. WHOI contributed housing and time for the PEP students to take a field trip on its coastal vessel Tioga. WHOI also welcomed PEP students to participate in seminars and events in WHOI’s annual Summer Student Fellowship program for undergraduates. SEA provided housing, care, and classroom space. Scientists from all institutions acted as mentors, hosting PEP students in their labs. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically black college, and the NOAA Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center helped design the course and arrange college credit for students.

Planting seed for homegrown talent

“Minority students tend to avoid degree programs in the ocean sciences and related fields for several reasons,” said Benjamin Cuker, a professor at Hampton University in Virginia, one of the first universities to develop marine science programs for underrepresented group. In a 2006 article in Marine Technology, he wrote, “These students often get little exposure to these fields and lack role models whom they might emulate. Too many of these students also lack the kindergarten through grade 12 preparation needed to be successful as an undergraduate science major.”

With all minority groups combined expected to outnumber non-minority groups in the U.S. by 2050, “it is important for the health of ocean science in the United States to diversify; our workforce needs to reflect the U.S. demographic makeup,” said Jian Lin, a WHOI geophysicist and a member of the diversity advisory committee. “We can’t continue to do business as usual, because if we keep doing things the traditional way, things won’t change. It became obvious we must do something together, and we must take an innovative approach.”

The innovative approach began with implementing nontraditional selection criteria for the program. “Not all students have equal opportunities, so by the time they apply, they have different levels of preparation,” Lin said. “We created a new opportunity for very bright students who didn’t have the same opportunities.”

The new tactic also meant going to the students and their colleges to recruit for the fledgling program. “We were very fortunate to have Ambrose, who has been involved for years in large networks of underrepresented communities, and he personally contacted people,” Lin said.

Jearld, who is African American, especially advocated for the idea of a “critical mass” of students: “We needed to find a way to bring numbers of students here at one time—to share the joy and pain of the experience,” he said. “In these students, there’s a spark of interest in science. Why could we not keep them engaged and help them find a life in science that they can be comfortable with?

“We need homegrown talent, and we don’t want to miss that talent, ” Jearld said. “Part of our goal is providing experiences that help them to feel good about their choices … and to make Woods Hole a welcoming environment.”

Scientific summers at WHOI

Five PEP student interned at WHOI. Shamgan Perkins, a Savannah State University senior interested in meteorology, and Zak Balmuth-Loris, a Syracuse University bioengineering student, plunged right in.

“We left as soon as we started for eight days on the Kathy Marie to Georges Bank,” Perkins said. Interning with WHOI biologist Scott Gallager, they did six-hour shifts towing HabCam, a camera system for imaging the seafloor and monitoring scallop populations.

“It was a great experience to do hands-on work on the boat,” Balmuth-Loris said. The two also identified swimming fish in real-time images from Gallager’s underwater PLUTO camera system off Panama.

Other students did laboratory-based research. Melissa Pinard, a chemistry major at Morgan State University, worked with WHOI scientist Anne Cohen to culture live bay scallop larvae under high levels of carbon dioxide, which creates more acidic seawater. “I grew shellfish larvae for 72 hours under different CO2 levels and measured differences in the development of their larval shell,” she said.

“You have to be open-minded,” Pinard said. “Science is interesting. Any field you get into, once you find your niche, you can learn a lot. I’ve never done anything with ocean acidification before, but not only do I like what I’m doing, but what I’m learning about why I’m doing it is also interesting, and I think it’s important that other people become aware of what’s going on in the world around them.”

Research internships can help you find out what you like—and what you don’t, said Adrienne George, a recent graduate of Delaware State University. She enjoyed working with WHOI biologist Lauren Mullineaux to identify and compare animals collected from two deep-sea hydrothermal vent sites, which required examining preserved samples under a microscope.

“This project has been entirely in the lab, and I’ve found I’m much more of a field person,” she said. “I’m learning what I like to do in science, and I like working with live animals. It’s better to have experiences you don’t enjoy as much, and learn from them.” George will enter graduate school to study biological oceanography.

Sanya Compton, a recent graduate from Savannah State, didn’t work with samples, animals, or boats at all, but with Porter Hoagland in the WHOI Marine Policy Center on a survey to help create a model to predict the economic impacts of sea level rise in Massachusetts.

“My part is to develop a survey for property owners, to gather qualitative data for a model,” she said. “I like the idea of using my science to work with people, to look at whether science is really impacting society.”

The PEP committee hopes to continue the program and hopes these students will share their experiences with their peers and spread the word about science in Woods Hole.

“We [Woods Hole science institutions] have always been leaders, and leaders have to think ahead,” Lin said. “We hope to run the program for at least 20 years—a whole generation. It is worth the investment, because there is an urgent societal need. It’s an honor to work on it, because we are working toward an important goal, and we hope more people would join us on this journey.”

Originally published: August 21, 2009