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Changing the Tide in Science

By Marilyn Padilla
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Aquarium of the Pacific’s African American Scholar Program

Last year was a stark reminder about the continuing and vital importance of efforts in equity, diversity, inclusion, justice, and accessibility in our community. The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., began building relationships with and giving recognition to underrepresented communities two decades ago through festivals, awards, and outreach. Last summer, the Aquarium engaged its African American community to learn what more it could do to make a meaningful difference. With this input and support from its board, staff, and donors, the Aquarium launched its first African American Scholar program. The goal was to help lift barriers by directly benefiting individuals financially and through networking and access to Aquarium staff and programs.

“According to the most recent research from the National Science Foundation (2017), only three African American students were awarded Ph.D. degrees in the U.S. in marine sciences in an entire year. With that perspective, we believe that this program can have an important impact on increasing diversity in this field and bringing diverse minds to solving the issues facing our planet,” said Anthony Brown, Aquarium of the Pacific chief financial officer and African American Scholar program committee lead.

After announcing this donor-funded program with $50,000 in support, additional donations came, and the Aquarium received a $10,000 matching gift from an anonymous donor. By February 2021, the program had funds for eight $10,000 scholarships. The Aquarium’s board and staff then donated an additional $30,000. Together, this provided ten $10,000 scholarships and $10,000 towards the program. 

This past fall, the Aquarium started accepting applications from students who demonstrated a commitment to studies in aquarium fields, including ocean education, animal husbandry, water quality, building maintenance or facilities, microbiology, and business management. A committee of community members and Aquarium staff selected the awardees.

The Aquarium honored the recipients during its 19th annual African-American Festival in February. The virtual festival included community members presenting music, dance, and cultural displays and culminated in the announcement of the following recipients.

“Being able to continue breaking barriers and teaching people in my local community makes me proud to be an African American student, researcher, and woman in the marine sciences,” said recipient Elishebah Tate-Pulliam, a M.S. candidate in biology at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). Through research as part of a living shoreline restoration project, one of Tate-Pulliam’s goals is to continue the collaboration between the CSULB wetlands teams and the Aquarium.

Kelsy Deckard feeding birds

Katherine Hannibal, who is an M.S. candidate in biology at California State University, Northridge said, “Aquariums provide such important steps in science communication, uniting scientific and public communities, and really serve as a lens to discover educational resources for sustainability, conservation, and research.” After earning a Ph.D., Hannibal’s goal is to become an outreach and education director, promoting STEM and environmental awareness to underserved youth.

Another recipient passionate about STEM is Danielle Sandoval, who is a CSULB undergraduate student in marine biology with a chemistry minor. Sandoval said, “This opportunity is only going to help me advance my education and career in marine sciences. I hope to inspire other African American students in STEM so that they can recognize their relevance and influence in STEM-related fields.”

“My long-term professional goals in the aquarium field will most certainly include inspiring and supporting children and teenagers of color to pursue a future in marine science. It is critical for young minorities in future generations to have more leaders to seek guidance from and relate to in this field,” said recipient Leslie Nguyen, who is an undergraduate student in marine biology at California State University, San Jose.

“I want to be that one person whose life revolves around making our planet a better place, not only for us humans, but also for every living creature,” said recipient Kelsy Deckard, an undergraduate student at California State University, Monterey Bay, whose goal is to be a mammologist.

Recipient Candice Mitchell said, “Marine inhabitants are currently experiencing warming water temperatures, decreasing oxygen availability, ocean acidification, chemical and plastic pollution, overfishing by commercial fisheries, and additional stress on population numbers brought on by various human activities. It is my mission to invest as much time and effort to help protect those animals who have been devastated by baseline changes to their habitat.” Mitchell is an undergraduate student studying marine and coastal science at the University of California, Davis.

Zachary Hood in the lab

Another recipient concerned about climate change is Frederick Nelson. “With the looming threat of rapid climate change, many of these species are not guaranteed to survive. Aquariums present a unique opportunity to capture a glimpse of this amazing diversity and showcase to the public how truly special our planet is,” said Nelson, who​ is a doctoral student in ecology at the University of California, Davis.

“Once I was aware of the factory, pharmaceutical effluent, rising CO2 levels, and the devastating micro-plastic problem, I changed my entire focus from swimming with dolphins to saving them,” said recipient Jahlen Pinelo, who is a microbiology student at University California, Riverside.

Newton Zachary Hood who recently met with the Aquarium’s staff at its endangered white abalone lab said, “I know as a black marine biologist, there's not many of us. You have to dedicate resources if you truly want to engage underrepresented communities. Without these grants and fellowships, I wouldn’t be here.” Hood is a doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California, Irvine with a goal of contributing to research on abalone conservation and recovery.

Recipient Ceyenna Tillman, whose essay will be featured in the Aquarium’s magazine, said, “As I work to earn my Ph.D. from Stanford this fall, I aim to collaborate with aquariums such as Aquarium of the Pacific to preserve coral species, test their responses to common stressors found in the wild, and look for ways to reintegrate them into their rapidly changing habitat.” Tillman is an undergraduate student in marine biology at University of California, Santa Cruz.

“This program starts our relationship with these bright scholars. We look forward to seeing all they accomplish in our industry, science, and conservation,” said Brown.

Top photo: Katherine Hannibal
Middle photo: Kelsy Deckard
Bottom photo: Newton Zachary Hood

Marilyn Padilla is the director of public relations at the Aquarium of the Pacific. 


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