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Meet the women diversifying shark science

Moving beyond Shark Week, these women-led groups teach thousands of students about the critical role sharks play in the marine ecosystem.

ByKara NortonNOVA EducationNOVA Education
female scuba diver next to a great hammerhead shark

NOVA digital editor, Kara Norton, observing a great hammerhead shark in Bimini, The Bahamas. Image Credit: Michael Ryan Clark

I learned to swim when I was two years old, and since then I have been fascinated by the animals that call the marine ecosystems of our planet home. However, there was always one animal that struck fear into my psyche whenever I ventured into the ocean: the great white shark. This apex predator and villain of the classic film Jaws has had a powerful effect on the public’s view of sharks. And this fear has been perpetuated through media programming like Discovery’s Shark Week.

In fact, researchers from Allegheny College presented a new analysis of Shark Week content at this year’s American Elasmobranch Society Conference. The study, which is undergoing peer review, reveals that “Shark Week is deeply flawed in ways that undermine its goals, potentially harming both sharks and shark scientists,” according to a statement. The content and discourse analysis covers more than 200 Shark Week episodes spanning 32 years of programming.

“The public’s perception of sharks, shark science, and shark scientists is heavily influenced by Shark Week,” noted lead author Dr. Lisa Whitenack in a statement. “Unfortunately, we found that Shark Week programming focuses on negative portrayals of sharks and does not often accurately portray shark research nor the diversity of expertise in the field. While critics have been saying this for some time, we now have the numbers to back it up.”

Over 500 shark species have lived in our oceans for millions of years, and as apex predators, sharks serve a critical role in maintaining the balance of vulnerable marine ecosystems.

While white sharks, tiger sharks, and bull sharks are the most commonly featured species on Shark Week programs, the study authors note that none of these species is of greatest conservation concern—and some of the most critically endangered species have never been featured.

“I always share with people that 75% of sharks are less than three feet long at their maximum,” says Jasmin Graham, president of Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS). “The public is very focused on great whites and they assume that is what a shark is, but the vast majority of sharks look nothing like that, they don’t hunt like that, they aren't very big, and most live in the deep sea where you're never going to encounter them.”

However, we are losing up to 100 million sharks per year due to destructive commercial fishing practices.

“Our fear of sharks is based on our own fear of the unknown, the vastness of the ocean, and big animals, because we want to survive,” says Jillian Morris-Brake, founder of Sharks4Kids. “It's powerful that someone who might not even live near the ocean who has never seen a shark is afraid, but there is a difference between hatred and fear, and the media can either instill fear or help educate people to learn about and respect sharks.”

When I graduated from college in 2016, I had the opportunity to assist three scientists with their elasmobranch research as an intern at Bimini Shark Lab in The Bahamas. Elasmobranchs are defined as cartilaginous fishes, which include sharks, rays, and skates. Species of this subclass have five to seven pairs of gill clefts, rigid dorsal fins, and spiny, toothlike scales (denticles) on the skin.

My experience with Bimini Shark Lab sparked a lifelong love of learning about sharks and helped dispel some of my fears. I learned to use some of the same methods scientists do, and was able to safely dive with sharks and gain hands-on field experience. One day I could be collecting measurements and samples from sharks and rays and the next I could be helping deploy baited remote underwater video systems (BRUVS) and analyzing their video footage. Each day brought the promise of a new interaction with sharks, and I consider it a privilege to have been able to observe lemon, tiger, reef, nurse, bull, and great hammerhead sharks in their natural habitat.

A great hammerhead shark swimming above a female scuba diver in the Bahamas

As a diver, a woman of color, and a passionate student of ocean sciences, the author believes that the field should be accessible to all. Image Credit: Michael Ryan Clark

However, the ability to travel to remote field stations and pay for accommodations and dive equipment to study these animals is a rare privilege that not everyone has. Women belonging to marginalized groups, including people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people of differing abilities, face heightened obstacles in the marine sciences. In fact, there has been no progress on diversity in 40 years in the geosciences (which includes ocean sciences), according to the academic journal Nature Geoscience.

Diversity is also lacking among shark science experts featured in media like Shark Week. The Allegheny College analysis revealed that over 93% of experts featured on Shark Week over the course of 30+ years were perceived by coders as white or white-passing, and 79% of experts identified as male, shared study co-author Julia Saltzman on social media.

The study also found that “Of the hosts and experts featured in more than five episodes, there were more men who were non-scientists named “Mike” than there were women of any name or occupation," according to a statement.

Additionally, 22% of people billed as experts, scientists, or researchers by Shark Week have no peer-reviewed publications, concluded Saltzman. To better inform the public, the authors suggest solutions to improve public perception of who a shark scientist is, and the quality of the science being communicated.

“We know that media representation and access to role models can play an important part in how welcoming STEM fields are to scientists from historically excluded groups,” said co-author Dr. Catherine Macdonald, in a statement on the study. “Moving away from featuring largely white male experts and towards including more diverse scientific voices and perspectives, particularly those of local experts where episodes are being filmed, would be a valuable step forward for Shark Week and shark science.”

To break down some of the barriers to entry into shark science, organizations like MISS, Sharks4Kids, and Beneath The Waves have created opportunities for a new generation of student scientists to learn about sharks and to observe them in their natural habitat. Some of these opportunities include free access to shark science curriculum and field research experiences, and a paid shark research mentorship program for women of color.

The founding members of Minorities in Shark Sciences standing together

The co-founders of MISS: Jasmin Graham (top left), Carlee Jackson (top right), Jaida Elcock (bottom left), and Amani Webber-Schultz (bottom right). Image credit: Field School

Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS)

Inspired by the hashtag #BlackInNature that trended on social media during Black Birders Week in 2020, Jasmin Graham, Amani Webber-Schultz, Carlee Jackson, and Jaida Elcock came together to create Minorities in Shark Sciences to promote diversity and inclusion in shark science, encourage women of color to contribute knowledge in marine science, and create an equitable path to shark science.

The MISS team chose June 19, 2020, as their launch date to bring attention to the history surrounding Juneteenth, the national holiday that celebrates the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned of their freedom. “Matching this historical event to something big that we are creating that has not existed for women of color before was a big reason why we chose the date,” says Webber-Schultz, MISS’ chief financial officer.

“Thinking about those slaves freed in Texas, if they could know in the future that there were going to be Black people getting PhDs, and there were going to be Black people publishing papers and everything, that would blow their mind,” says Graham. “But it doesn't just stop there. The barriers should not exist at all, and the work is not finished, and the founding of MISS is a continuation of all of the work that was started by those that came before us.”

The team created an initiative called Gill Guardians to help educate the public about sharks, skates, and rays, including the threats they face and conservation efforts to protect them. Gill Guardians is also available in multiple languages. Courses include video lessons, activities, quizzes and action items. MISS’s K-12 program gives students a chance to learn about shark biology and conservation while engaging with women of color working in the field. The middle school class (grades 6-8) focuses on threats facing sharks and how scientists are working to understand and reverse negative human impacts. With this foundational knowledge, the high school class (grades 9-12) offers students the chance to use techniques scientists use to study sharks and analyze real data.

MISS Co-founders Amani Webber-Schultz and Jaida Elcock restrain a blacktip shark to take a fin sample

MISS Co-founders Amani Webber-Schultz and Jaida Elcock restrain a blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus) while MISS member and workshop student Tracey takes a small fin sample. This fin sample will be used for genetic analysis. Image credit: Field School

Mentorship is another core tenet of the MISS mission, and the organization’s Rising Tides Mentorship Program is designed to encourage and support mentorship between women of color.

The program funds mentorship pairs working on an elasmobranch-related research project for one year with a total of $10,000, broken down as a $2000 mentor stipend, $5,000 mentee stipend, and $3,000 for research expenses. Mentors can be at any career stage (undergraduate to late-career) but must be mentoring someone in an earlier career stage (high school to mid-career) and teams must work on a project related to elasmobranch research or conservation.

“Historically, people of color are not always mentored in the same way that their white counterparts are,” says Webber-Schultz. “People are statistically more likely to take someone under their wing who looks like them, who reminds them of themselves when they were younger. So, a white scientist looking at me, they're not going to see themselves in me,” she says. “That creates an invisible bias that we don't really talk about.”

“We know that diversity only makes science better. Different intersectional identities provide more perspectives and ways to solve a problem,” adds Webber-Schultz. When asked why MISS chose to focus specifically on women of color and shark science, Graham notes that this was an intentional decision the team made when outlining the group’s mission.

"We can handle this little slice of the pie. If everyone took a little tiny slice of the pie, eventually systemic racism would be dismantled,” says Graham. “But saying we as four people are going to dismantle 200 years of racism, that's not going to happen, but we might be able to address it in this little tiny sliver of this really large pie.”

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Sharks4Kids was launched in 2013 by Jillian Morris-Brake with the goal of providing free, online educational materials to help teachers bring shark science into the classroom. These resources are aligned with Next Generation Science Standards and the United Nations sustainable development goals.

“If teachers are talking about predator-prey systems, they could use land animals or ocean animals, so we try to make it fun and easy for them to use sharks as an example,” says Morris-Brake. “Another application could be different shark habitats or adaptations. We try to share resources for things like an adaptation lesson that they're required to teach but is also interesting and hands-on for students.”

In addition to the online curriculum, Sharks4Kids offers in-person visits, educational tours, snorkeling trips and shark-tagging expeditions in South Florida and The Bahamas in partnership with the Guy Harvey Research Institute. Pre-pandemic, the Sharks4Kids team could take up to 25 students and five chaperones on these tagging expeditions. In The Bahamas, the Sharks4Kids team usually goes out four times a year and supports up to 25 students on research excursions.

Since 2013, Sharks4Kids has connected nearly 155,000 students from 49 U.S. states and 60 countries through in-person visits and virtual lessons. In South Florida, Sharks4Kids primarily works with Title 1 schools.

“Since we started doing the shark-tagging trips we knew that we wanted to work with Title 1 schools that did not have a budget to do this but had the interest,” says Morris-Brake. “We believe that lack of funding is a barrier that should not stop kids from having access to science.”

Morris-Brake developed this philosophy while working with schools on eight islands in The Bahamas. She also wanted to create experiential learning opportunities where students can work with a real scientist and develop an understanding of how scientific studies are carried out.

“For conservation to be successful, you have to have that connection,” says Morris-Brake. “By putting kids out on the boat or participating in science, they're learning, but we're giving them something they will carry with them for the rest of their life. They will be telling their kids, ‘Hey, when I was your age, I got to tag a shark,’ or, ‘I got to snorkel with sharks.’ I think that changes the way we learn, that hands-on experience, that firsthand seeing, touching, the experience of being on the boat, the equipment, everything. That will stay with them.”

When facilitating these experiences, Morris-Brake reflects on the lack of mentorship and representation she saw in shark science, and how it fuels her mission to change it for the better.

“Most of our team are women because I didn't see women doing what I wanted to do,” she says. “I want young girls to see that women work in science. They work with sharks. They dive. They do all these things. I've worked in multiple careers. Between the media, science, and the dive world, these were all male dominated.”

Beneath The Waves

Beneath The Waves is an organization dedicated to promoting ocean health by using science to catalyze ocean policy, with a focus on shark conservation and marine protected areas. They partner with national leaders, local governments, business leaders, and stakeholder communities to inspire change in our oceans.

Education is a core tenet of their mission, whether it is helping entry-level professionals find their path, mentoring graduate students, or engaging students in shark science through virtual reality and video. Local engagement is also key, as part of a partnership with the Exuma Foundation, Beneath The Waves has worked with 24 Bahamian students and exposed them to marine research and STEM during expeditions in The Bahamas.

“We had a meeting with the Minister of Education for The Bahamas, and we are going to work with their team to actually come up with a curriculum for Bahamian students to begin to learn about sharks and the ocean over the course of their primary school education,” says Jamie Fitzgerald, managing director at Beneath The Waves.

In addition to the work that Beneath The Waves does in the Caribbean, they also offer marine science mentorship to students from the New England region. The organization has been working with Thayer Academy in Braintree, Massachusetts, engaging 50 high school and middle-school students in real-world science and ocean programs. At Northeastern University, the Beneath The Waves team offers graduate student mentorship for those interested in pursuing careers in marine science.

“I think a lot of people think that we are a Caribbean-based NGO, but the biodiversity of the marine environments in the New England area is something that's really ingrained in our organization,” says Fitzgerald. “The sharks that we tag down in The Bahamas migrate up to New England throughout the year, and we want people to be able to understand the connectivity of the ocean, and tracking sharks and seeing how the habitats correspond is a great lesson.”

As Beneath The Waves expands its educational offerings, Fitzgerald asks herself how the organization should adapt and grow to be responsive to what this new generation of scientists wants or needs to explore for the future.

“We want to offer opportunities to the scientists of tomorrow,” says Fitzgerald. “It's priceless getting to see those light bulbs go off in their heads and seeing those a-ha moments of students jumping right in and getting dirty, putting their hands in the bait, wanting to get in the water when we're setting up the BRUVS, having students asking about how we do all of the science that we're doing.”

students working with shark plasma samples in a lab at Thayer Academy

Beneath The Waves interns (both high school and college level) process shark plasma to determine triglyceride levels to gain an understanding of shark feeding habits and metabolism. Image Credit: Beneath The Waves

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