Why Increasing Diversity In Marine Sciences Will Save The Ocean

By Aliyah Griffith

When I was very young, I visited the National Aquarium in Baltimore and it changed the trajectory of my entire life. I wanted to know more about these creatures, their behaviors, their environments and how I could work with them for the rest of my life. That day, I approached one of the employees working in the dolphin exhibition and asked “what is the name of what you do?’’ she replied “I’m a marine biologist”. Today, I am a PhD student in the Marine Science department at UNC Chapel Hill studying coral reef ecosystems.

Today, our ocean is one of the most important tools we have to combat climate change. In fact, scientists agree that we must protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030 in order to save the diversity and abundance of life on Earth. Additionally, the 30x30 initiative would help the ocean provide a fifth of the greenhouse gas emission reductions globally, but only if we protect it. Protecting it means using all of our experience, research, and minds to study and create solutions that protect this invaluable resource.

In August of 2016, I founded Mahogany Mermaids as a resource for young women of color to be exposed to marine science and nurture their interest in the field. We offer virtual and in-person educational events, online education resources, a list of scholarships and a grant of our own to support a marine studies student in college. Though I was able to easily find opportunities to nurture my love of marine sciences, I know that I am, unfortunately, the exception, not the rule. I founded Mahogany Mermaids not only because I want to support other young women of color, but because increasing diversity in all STEM fields, including marine science, is essential to the survival of our ocean and our planet.

Mahogany Mermaids is designed to not only expose students to marine science, but to provide students a personal connection to the ocean. Our programming encourages students from all backgrounds to become advocates for ocean climate health in their own communities and beyond. By inspiring students to be excited about our ocean, the scientific community will eventually gain perspectives from people with a diversity of experience who’ve found a passion to protect our coastlines.

This year, I was able to go to Barbados, where my family is from, for a potential research project. Though it was great to see family and enjoy the pristine beaches of Barbados, what is perhaps most important to me is to study this area in a way that not only looks at scientific data but cultural impacts as well. Gaining a complete understanding of all of our coastlines and how we can protect them is essential to nurturing a healthy ocean.

Assessing coral reef health and gaining information on a quantitative level and a historical understanding of these areas are equally important. Talking to oceanside residents, investigating the cultural significance of the coastline, and factoring in the economic impacts on local businesses are all kinds of data that scientists should use in their ocean research. In my experience, this kind of holistic research is a method that is often conducted by scientists who have a personal connection to the area they are studying.

All scientists bring important skills and resources to their research. By having a diversity of scientists bringing and sharing additional unique perspectives, relationships and skills to projects, the research becomes more comprehensive and valuable. This is why it is critical to have more representation of women and people of color in the STEM fields.

The diversity of backgrounds and experiences in all STEM fields benefits us all in innumerable ways. And right now, we need all of the best and brightest minds to save our planet. If we do not work together and draw from all experiences to meet our global climate goals such as those set by the 30 by 30 Initiative and others, our ocean and our planet will suffer irreparable consequences. We must have all hands on deck to find new and novel solutions to combat climate change and that means welcoming and encouraging all students into the STEM fields and beyond.

Aliyah Griffith is a third year PhD student at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is originally from Maryland and received her B.S. in Marine and Environmental Science from Hampton University, an HBCU in Hampton, Virginia. She is currently completing her Master’s degree and will continue her coral research on reef efforts in Barbados, West Indies. She is the CEO and founder of MahoganyMermaids, a non-profit that encourages young students of color to choose careers in the marine sciences. Through her non-profit and through her work with educators, she strives to create supportive and uplifting environments through science education and communication.