owning my narrative, or how/why i became a marine biologist

I came across this blog post about #IamScience today and it made me reflect on how I became a scientist, more specifically a marine biologist. There are so many different ways we can get to where we are in science, but only so many accepted narratives. I never felt comfortable sharing with most people in my field why I was interested in marine biology, largely because it never seemed like an accepted or respected narrative. My story was never their story. Not even close. The majority of the people I met in undergrad and grad school who were also planning on being marine biologists/scientists had these similar narratives:

- they grew up largely by the ocean
- they went tidepooling often
- they went out on boat trips often
- they had even lived on houseboats
- they loved the organisms they saw while fishing
- they loved the organisms they saw while surfing
- they loved the organisms they saw while snorkeling or SCUBA diving
- they had scientist parents or their parents were academics
- they wanted to be like Jacques Cousteau
- they loved going to the aquarium and went often
- they volunteered/interned at aquaria
- they were white

I heard these narratives so often that I never wanted to share my story. But recently I’ve started to feel differently about that. Recently I’ve begun to reclaim my narrative…

I grew up in LA. West LA. Inglewood. Crenshaw. Culver City. Hawthorne/Lawndale…We moved around a lot, but always within LA. As a little black girl I went to the beach, mostly in Marina Del Rey. Didn’t see tidepools, didn’t see fish, just flat beaches with lots of people. My parents took me to SeaWorld when I was ~6 and I loved it. I remember the sea stars and sea urchins in the touch tanks the most. But that is all. We never went to aquariums, never went to see tidepools, did not go out on boats (with the exception of my aunt’s wedding that took place on a boat).

When I was little, I wanted to be an artist. I loved to paint, I loved to color, I loved to draw. I liked to make things that were aesthetically pleasing. This was how I felt until I was about 9, when I decided, after learning my mother was going to become a paralegal, that I was going to be a lawyer when I grew up. This seemed practical. More practical than an artist.

We didn’t really go to the beach much anymore, if at all. I spent my time in the house, playing, reading, watching TV. Or I played outside, ran around, rode bikes or skated around concrete jungles with other black kids my age. Played hide-and-go-seek in gated apartment complexes. Flipped on old, abandoned mattresses, hopped over old cars and fences, and watched my boy friends (not boyfriends) jump gates and rooftops, pretending to run away from the po-po. Practice for the future, my one friend would say to me.

One day, when I was eleven, I was at my grandmother’s house after school, watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and Reading Rainbow like I always did. Everyday. I loved science shows and loved Bill Nye. I also loved reading and had been watching Reading Rainbow for years. But this day was different. This day, LeVar Burton was talking about something I hadn’t heard of before. The entire episode highlighted kids/youth books related to the ocean and LeVar was on a boat being taught about marine organisms by marine biologists. I was fascinated. Completely mesmerized by all the different creatures and all the different things the scientists were studying. LeVar and the scientists talked about the importance of studying the organisms and keeping the ocean free of pollution. At that moment I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wanted to be a marine biologist.

After that, whenever anyone asked what I wanted to be, I said marine biologist. People didn’t always understand why, especially when we moved to Las Vegas (i.e. the desert) after I started high school, but they thought it was cool. I could never really say what made me choose this path. I didn’t really feel that saying Reading Rainbow was a legitimate reason. Nor did I have any other reasonable reason, like frequenting the aquarium, or knowing a lot about fish. So I’d say I liked watching ocean-themed nature shows and wanted to learn more about marine life, which was true, but never felt that was a good enough reason.

Fast-forward to college where every marine biology major was a) white and b) gave one of the aforementioned listed reasons for wanting to be a marine biology major. And there was me, who hadn’t been to an aquarium since I was a little kid, who didn’t dive or snorkel, who hadn’t taken a marine biology class in high school, who hadn’t spent family camping trips along the coast, etc. Who, unlike my classmates, hadn’t seen many of the marine organisms we saw in labs in person before. Up to that point I’d only seen them on tv or in books. The worst part was when someone in some marine/aquatic bio class would make reference to Jacques Cousteau. Everyone would ooh and aah, or give that nod of understanding while I had no idea who this person was. All I could do, given the context, was assume he was someone important in marine biology and the inspiration for many in those classes and the professors. But it was one of those things I knew I could never ask about. Doing so would prove that I didn’t belong in those classes, prove that I had no business trying to be a scientist, let alone a marine biologist…I nodded in pseudo-understanding along with them.

We went on a camping trip for my invertebrate zoology class. I, unlike most of my peers, had never gone camping before. Luckily, I had a friend in the class who helped me out with this. Made me feel less out of place. I was grateful for that. Grateful because I spent a lot of time in undergrad trying to remind myself that there was nothing wrong with having such a different background from my peers and that I was just as capable.

I went to grad school to further study marine biology. I didn’t SCUBA dive like most of my peers. I’m actually still not certified as it wasn’t imperative for my research. I also did a lot of outreach and during meetings with the organizers, often listened to them talk about those “poor, urban kids” who didn’t have many outdoor experiences and how it was a “shame” that “those kids” didn’t know x or y about nature/the environment/oceans. These organizers who grew up going camping, hiking, going out on boats, tidepooling, snorkeling. I remember loathing those meetings because I was one of “those kids” and did not feel as deficient as they were making them/us seem. There was much we had gained from growing up in urban areas. However, it was evident there was little room for genuinely appreciating varied (read non-urban and non-white) upbringings and backgrounds.

Amid questions of “what made you decide to go to college? and grad school?” which were thinly veiled microaggressions, I would be asked the “what inspired you to study marine biology? when did I know?” Again, I could not tell the truth, so I always made up something, or gave a vague answer about always being interested in the ocean. How could I be a legitimate PhD student with Reading Rainbow as my inspiration?

What I didn’t realize then was that I could be completely legitimate. That I was completely legitimate. That that little urban black girl who only saw marine organisms on tv or in books could grow up and be a legitimate marine biologist. That she could hopefully some day soon teach other people about topics in marine biology. I didn’t realize that it was ok to have a different trajectory, even if everyone around you didn’t make you feel like it was ok. You never really hear the stories that don’t include the typical marine biologist precursors. So here is my non-typical story. It could be that my narrative is more typical than I think, but you’d never know given the prevalence of the accepted general narrative.

Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if I hadn’t seen that one episode of Reading Rainbow. What would have happened had LeVar Burton not showcased marine biologists? I feel like I owe him a thank you. For exposing a city kid like me, and all those other kids, to that amazing career. I’m also no longer shy about admitting that it was his show that inspired me.

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6 thoughts on “owning my narrative, or how/why i became a marine biologist

  1. Kevin Zelnio (@kzelnio)

    Wow. This is an important post, probably more so than you realize! I really appreciate it! Growing up in rural/suburban Iowa we never had access to the ocean. Though I fished on the Mississippi and in Canadian Lakes, that hardly counts. I didn’t know who Jacques Cousteau really was until college either! And despite my years of marine biology, Ive never been certified to SCUBA, too LOL. Aside from my white maleness, we have lots in common it seems!

    I can totally identify with the outsider/impostor feeling. I grew into a love for marine biology well into my 2-3rd years of college. But mostly because I was crazy about marine invertebrate diversity. But, if I had to name a seed in my mind, I watched 20,000 leagues under the sea religiously. But I can’t pinpoint any time where I thought, I want to be a marine biologist.

    Also, I LOVED Reading Rainbow!
    <3 this post, thanks so much!

    Reply
    1. alchemyinpractice Post author

      I was really inspired by you sharing your story. So really, thank you. I agree that it’s important to share and that we don’t do enough of it, especially for people who don’t necessarily see themselves or their experiences reflected in the field. And now I know I’m not alone in intially not knowing who Jacques Cousteau was!

      Reply
      1. Kevin Zelnio (@kzelnio)

        Please drop me an email at kzelnio at gmail dot com. I’d love to get in touch about your story for the I AM SCIENCE book I’m putting together. Happy to maintain anonymity/pseudonymity in way you feel comfortable with.

        All the best, Kevin!

  2. Cedar Riener

    I loved Reading Rainbow too, I think I may even remember that episode.I had a bit of a circuitous route to science as well, although not quite like yours, filled with impostor syndrome of a different flavor.
    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Reply
  3. SMA

    Nice post. Here’s my story. I am with you and Kevin Zelnio–I never wanted to be a marine biologist. I grew up in KS and never had any interest in the ocean growing up. In fact, by the time I was in college, I had only been to the ocean once–in the fifth grade I visited my aunts in California. They took me to the beach once–I stood on the beach and had my picture taken; that was it. As a biology major in college, I was on track to become a pharmacist because I couldn’t think of any other answer when my folks asked what I would do with a degree in biology. I had a work-study job in the biology lab prep room and part of my job was to feed the anemones in the seawater tank. I thought, “those are weird” and spent a lot of time watching them, but that was it. Fast forward to my fourth year in college, the first year in pharmacy school, and I was miserable. I hated it. Randomly, I ran into a professor from my first college on the campus of my pharmacy school and told him that I wasn’t into it. He said, “You don’t HAVE to become a pharmacist. You CAN go to graduate school for biology.” It was the first time anyone had ever said that to me. That’s all I needed really. With that, I started working with a sea anemone taxonomist at my university who encouraged me to try out a marine science undergraduate program. So, in the second semester of my fifth year of college, I went to Washington state for a marine bio undergrad program (MIMSUP–check it out). When I first got there, I was still being very practical; I thought I would do the program for the life experience, but I would go to graduate school in a practical field, pharmacology. By the end of my time in that program though, I was hooked. I finally realized, “this is cool and I can do it and get a job.” Eleven years, a PhD, about fifteen research cruises, 21 sub dives, and a couple of postdocs later, my parents are still asking me what I am going to do with my degree. They may not quite get it, when I tell them “I am doing what am going to do with my degree–I do marine biology research,” but they are sure proud of me for going after what I want and being successful at it, and I am certainly a lot happier than I would have been if I would have taken the path of least resistance.

    Thank you for sharing your story. It’s important for young folks to hear these stories, especially first generation college students, minorities, and kids that live in small towns in Kansas. It’s important for them to know they are not so different from real, live, working marine biologists and oceanographers (I know many that grew up in the middle of the country). And it is especially important for them to understand that the marine environment is important and worth studying.

    Reply

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