Mote Biologist Jasmin Graham on the Need for Diversity in Science
This article is part of the series Listening to Diverse Voices, proudly presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation.
Mote Marine Laboratory biologist Jasmin Graham specializes in elasmobranch ecology—the study of sharks, skates, and rays and their evolution. Graham, 26, is a member of Black Women in Ecology Evolution and Marine Science, as well as the American Elasmobranch Society, where she served two years on its Student Committee and interned with prestigious organizations such as the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Fort Johnson Marine Lab, and FWC Division of Marine Fisheries Management.
In January 2020, Graham moved to Sarasota with her four-year-old rescue pup named Iggy to join the team at Mote and become the project coordinator for the Marine Science Laboratory Alliance Center of Excellence (MarSci-LACE) project.
An advocate for science education, in the wake of this year's social unrest, Graham teamed up with three fellow female Black marine scientists to found Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS), with a mission to open doors for underrepresented minority students with an interest in the marine sciences.
Tell us about your family’s connection to he civil rights era.
“My dad is tfrom an active civil rights ident of NAACP in Myrtle Beach. In the 1930s, Luther opened a funeral home where the hearse served as the ‘rescue squad,’ also known as the ambulance, for the Black community until the late 1960s/early 1970s. The ambulance for white people would not go into the Black community at that time.
“To this day, my grandpa was the first and only Black person in Myrtle Beach to ever own a gas station. In the 1960s, he was willed the Exxon gas station by the former white owner. But the company refused to let the franchise be given to a Black man. So my grandpa got the building and had to buy the franchise himself. Apparently, the city of Myrtle Beach built a road through his parking lot, but he ran the business for several decades, and even opened another location, despite all that.”
What was your childhood like?
My mom is a retired Air Force major, so I was a military brat and we moved a few times. On base, there’s an interesting microcosm—it’s a representation of diversity from all over the U.S. and the world. Outside the military bubble, it was totally different.
“The first time I heard the n-word, I was young, and didn’t know a lot about racism. Even though I had never heard the word, it felt hateful. When I got home, I asked what it meant. My mom’s response was honest, and came in the form of Black history, back to slavery. My father said, ‘Now that you can recognize hate, we will watch Roots.’ With that, he went to the public library and borrowed all eight volumes.
“Being active in terms of Black history and civil rights, my parents shared how Black people overcame obstacles and rose above. They educated me about everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcom X, and I learned that everything we got as a people was despite the world being against us. My parents made sure that the emphasis was not on our oppression, but how we overcame it, and that my Black-ness meant that I am an overcomer.
“It’s a weird phenomenon to be hated even though you don’t understand what racism is. That’s something young Black people experience that other families don’t think about. Every Black family has to have that uncomfortable conversation with their child when the child asks, ‘Why don’t they like me, or why are they being mean to us?’ That’s the worst part, that the burden of hate is placed on the innocent.
What drew you to the shark sciences?
“I stumbled upon it. My family spent a lot of time in the waters of Myrtle Beach. I loved science, and was curious about the ocean beyond a food source, and I would ask my family questions that they couldn’t always answer. So my parents sent me to MarineQuest, a five-day, sleep-away science camp. Once I realized that I could do this as a career—get paid to play in the ocean with fish everyday—I applied to all the marine biology schools.
“One day, the College of Charleston held a ‘research match-making day’ for students. I happened upon Dr. Gavin Naylor’s study of sharks and their evolution. I found it so cool. Not long after, he reached out to me about working in his undergrad research lab. He became a mentor and connected me to Dr. Dean Grubbs at Florida State University to take the next steps in my graduate career.”
Marine science is not known for diversity—what was it like for you in college?
“The College of Charleston was a predominately white institution with minorities making up just 9 percent of the student body.
“I applied to the honors college, which was lacking in diversity, and where the faculty would say, ‘I don’t see color.’ During the interview process, they asked about affirmative action. It was common to ask newsworthy questions to see if students were aware of current events. I remember thinking it was a terrible question, and wondering how they could feel it was OK. I responded by explaining why affirmative action was created, and how I was sure that if I received a place in the honors college, someone would say it was because I’m Black, not because of my achievements.
“There was another time, at graduation, when the honors college was recognizing the upcoming graduates with a Champagne and strawberries event. They scheduled this for the same day and time as the Nia Rite of Passage. ‘Nia’ is the Swahili word for 'purpose,' and the event is a Black coming-of-age cultural celebration. When I emailed to decline the honors event, they had no idea that Nia had the same standing date at the college for 30 years.
“For the Black community, African cultural traditions like these are important, and it’s important to re-weave our heritage into our lives. Another example is a tolling of the bell at family get-togethers, where we say the name of an ancestor and ring a bell. It’s based on the concept that you will die a ‘double-death’ when your name is no longer spoken. This is why you hear ‘say their name’ at Black Lives Matter marches.”
You are one of four Black female co-founders of Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS)—how did this come about and what is the mission?
“My co-founders and I met on Twitter in June 2020 during the social media campaign called #BlackInNature. The hashtag was created as part of #BlackBirdersWeek, in response to the many incidents that were happening to Black people outside—from Ahmaud Arbery jogging to Christian Cooper birding in Central Park.
“I posted a photo of me on a boat and mentioned shark science. Then another Black woman who works with sharks popped into my Twitter feed. In no time, there were five of us on a thread. One woman said she left the marine science field and that maybe if she hadn’t felt so alone, she would still be doing the work.
“So, the four of us decided to change the unwelcoming culture, and build a community of support for minorities. We are connecting women of color and have strength in numbers—you can ignore one of us, but not our growing membership of 180, in 18 different countries, and 31 states/territories.”
Tell us about the Marine Science Laboratory Alliance Center of Excellence (MarSci-LACE) and your work with the group.
“As of 2016, the Department of Education reported that underrepresented minorities make up just 17 percent of students receiving a STEM bachelor's degree. When you look at marine science, this number drops to 10.8 percent.
“The MarSci-LACE program is a diversity initiative that focuses on broadening participation of minorities in marine science. We are studying best practices to recruit, support and retain minority students in marine science. The work I do focuses on professional development for interns, as well as education for mentors.”
In the early 1900s, feminist and activist Nannie Helen Burroughs said that “Black women specialize in the wholly impossible.” What does this mean to you?>
“Black women have dragged this country along to do better and be better. It’s great to see them getting credit after the presidential election—especially in Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris’ acceptance speech. Black women don’t often get recognized for being on the front lines of social movements; it’s usually a white face. But Black women do it because they care, not for recognition. There’s a whole network who wants to make the world better, often at their own expense.
“I believe that the Black woman’s super power is seeing something that needs to be done and doing it.”
What do you want your white friend/neighbor/colleague/community to be doing right now?
“The best thing you can do is listen and support while staying in your lane. We don’t need a white savior who thinks they can hop into the movement and do it better. Our world is super-nuanced.
“Use your privilege to make sure those who the Black voice, like the white people who rode with the Freedom Riders—they got off the bus first to be human shields for the Black people with the megaphone. Or like when Bree Newsome climbed a South Carolina flagpole to take down the Confederate flag. A white male activist accompanied her, and put his hand on the flagpole as police were about to electrocute the pole with tasers. We’ve seen similar examples recently, such as the white mothers in Portland who lined up to protect the protesters.
“My mom always says, ‘Know your place, do your job.’"
Listening to Black Voices is a series created by Heather Dunhill