Black Excellence in the 21st Century

Earlier this month, I highlighted some of the first African-American marine scientist and their accomplishments within the field. As Black History Month slowly comes to an end, I decided to end the month by showcasing the achievements of a few more persons of color in the 21st century, two of which I got the opportunity to interview! 


1. Dr. Paulinus Chigbu


Dr. Chigbu received his PhD from the University of Washington in Fisheries, and is a Professor of Marine and Fisheries Science at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES). Dr. Chigbu serves as  the Director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center (LMRCSC), as well as Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for Research Excellence in Science and Technology - Center for the Integrated Study of Coastal Ecosystem Processes and Dynamics in the mid-Atlantic region (CREST-CISCEP). The goal of LMRCSC is to increase the number of educated, trained and graduated students from underrepresented communities in marine science for career opportunities with NOAA, NOAA contractors, other Federal agencies, and academia. The many programs Dr. Chigbu has established and coordinated have impacted more than 500 students, myself included, at various levels; from middle and high school through undergraduate to graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. This summer, I got the opportunity to attend UMES's REU and personally meet/work with Dr. Chigbu, and since then he has helped me tremendously with advancing my career as a marine scientist.

2. Dr. Ambrose Jerald


 Dr. Ambrose Jerald received his Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University in 1975. Since 1978 he has been a fisheries biologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center's Woods Hole Laboratory, where he has conducted and published research and has served as an administrator and manager. In 2009, Dr. Jerald founded a program called Partnership Education Program (PEP) at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. PEP is a summer science intern program designed to promote diversity in the Woods Hole science community by recruiting talent from groups that are underrepresented in marine and environmental sciences. Since PEP began in 2009, over 100 students have received the opportunity to conduct research at one of six participating institutions, these include NOAA Fisheries, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole Research Center, Marine Biological Laboratory, Sea Education Association, and U.S. Geological Survey. Last summer, while conducting research at UMES, I quickly found out that Dr. Chigbu and Dr. Jerald are good friends, and while presenting my research at the NOAA EEP Forum I got the opportunity to meet Dr. Jerald! Needless to say, last summer was AMAZING!

3. Dr. José Jones


Dr. José Jones received his Ph.D. from Georgetown University in Marine Biology. He spent 25 years as a professor of marine biology and environmental science at the University of the District of Columbia. Dr. Jones is co-founder, former president, and current chair of the Science & Education Committee of the National Association of Black Scuba divers (NABS). Under his leadership, NABS has formed over 50 dive clubs in the United States and around the world, including Africa, Australia, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Fiji, Hawaii and the Maldives Islands. Dr. Jones and NABS have been recognized in forty publications including the Washington Post, New York Times and the National Geographic. Dr. Jones and his team have trained and certified over 2,000 divers free of charge. In 45 years he has taught over five thousand people, mostly children, to swim. His commitment to volunteerism comes from his belief that people who have something to give should give to others, whether it is knowledge, skills, or support. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to meet Dr. Jones, but I surely hope to in the near future!

I got an amazing opportunity to interview both, Dr. Noelle Bowlin and Dr. Dawn Wright, check out their answers below!


4. Dr. Noelle Bowlin


Dr. Noelle Bowlin received her Ph.D. in 2015 from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. As a graduate student Dr. Bowlin created Focus on the Future, a summer program in which Compton High School and other students visit Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, California for immersive education and activities, from working in labs to heading to sea on a Scripps research vessel.


Q. What motivated you to start the Focus on the Future summer program?

During graduate school, there was an ugly series of incidents at UCSD that started with a racially stereotyped invitation letter to an off-campus party entitled, “Compton Cookout.” That invitation letter was very insulting to people of all colors, religions, and cultures. It was the catalyst for unacceptable behavior and frenetic reactionary energy. Several of my classmates and I got together to discuss what was happening with undergraduates and how we could help. UCSD held a “teach-in” event in response to all of this activity. During that event, a history teacher from Compton High School read a statement written by her students eloquently explaining that they felt they should be heard during this teach-in since the infamous invitation made assumptions about the people in their town. Listening to that letter is what made our group of grad students seek support to reach out to those students. We worked very closely with the Scripps Institution of Ocean administration to design the “Focus on the Future” program. It was a success and something we are thankful we were a part of.


Q. Are there any other outreach initiatives you want to create?/ Are you currently working on any outreach initiatives?

I am still involved in a variety of outreach activities, mostly focused around teaching students who are not normally exposed to marine science. I am also part of a group at work who are developing a program to teach the greater San Diego community about sustainable seafood.


Q. If you could give other students in the field, especially minorities a single piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. That sounds cliché and silly, but it’s the truth. More advanced people in my field still intimidate me. When that happens to me, I have an internal conversation and remind myself that not a single person in any position achieved that place on their own. Everyone needs help, so best to ask for it. I am currently mentoring two technicians that want to also do science research and I get excited when they ask for help. It reinvigorates me to do better with my own research. The bottom line is that everyone needs help and it’s best to seek it out because that is the most efficient way. For minorities, honestly, it is more difficult for so many reasons that I’ve experienced and others I have not. However, my advice doesn’t change. Find the people that want to help you, because we are out there.

5. Dr. Dawn Wright


Dr. Dawn Wright received her PhD from University of California, Santa Barbara in Physical Geography and Marine Geology. Dr. Wright was the first African-American female to dive to the ocean floor in the deep submersible ALVIN. She is a leading authority in the application of geographic information system (GIS) technology to the field of ocean and coastal science and is currently Chief Scientist of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri).


Q. How did you become interested in marine science?

By the time I was eight, I had pretty much decided to become an oceanographer. I wasn't sure what kind of an oceanographer I was going to become. I wasn't sure whether I was going to become a scientist, an underwater photographer, or what. By high school, I had read up on what oceanographers do. I was really interested in geology. I really liked rocks and volcanoes, so I decided to put myself on the path to geological oceanography.


Q. What does your current role as Chief Scientist of Esri entail? What do you hope to accomplish as the chief scientist? 

LOTS of email. Seriously, my mission as Esri chief scientist is to foster good science within the Esri organization which we need to do in order to create the software, services, maps, apps, and datasets that scientists need in order to do their best science. In addition, I also support the science community (specifically in my own specialty of ocean science, but also in geology/geophysics, hydrology, climate science, forestry, agricultural science, conservation biology, forestry, sustainability science, and of course geographic information science), through participation in projects, scientific meetings, and representation on many boards and councils. In this sense, supporting the scientific community means contributing as a member of the scientific community, rather than as just a vendor of software. So that is a big part of my day-to-day job, offering objective scientific representation on these various boards and committees of the US National Academy of Sciences, the NOAA Science Advisory Board, the National Science Foundation's EarthCube initiative, the Group on Earth Observation and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (aka UNESCO), etc. I still maintain a faculty appointment at Oregon State University and my most recent PhD student is now just finishing a NOAA Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship. For more information check out


Q. If you could give other students in the field, especially minorities a single piece of advice, what would it be?

The trick I think is to keep that passion and excitement going. There is no escaping mathematics and gaining expertise with computers. Even if math isn’t your strongest subject, it’s a good idea to stick with it and to do as well as you can and to really get as much experience as you can on computers. That’s a big part of oceanography today. For me, GIS is all about computers. Even if you are not a computer geek, you need to have some wherewithal with computers. The last thing is to do as much personal research as you can about oceanography. With the Internet, it’s so easy because you can go to so many web sites. All of the institutions that specialize in oceanography have great web sites. They’re great resources. The more personal research each person does, the better.

I sincerely hope you've enjoyed my Black History Month articles, as much as I've enjoyed writing them! Next week, I will be traveling to Honolulu, Hawaii for the annual ASLO conference; be on the look out for my next #LessonsFromTheOcean post on my trip to Hawaii and a update on how my spring semester is going!


Anjali Boyd