While many may know Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium primarily as the aquarium attraction in Sarasota, Fla., our organization actually began as a marine research facility, and it wasn’t until several decades into our history that we opened the Mote Science Education Center (now Mote Aquarium).
Mote’s benefactor and namesake, William R. Mote, believed in the value of translating and transferring our marine science as a public service. This belief became a core tenet for all of us at Mote, which has continued through Mote Aquarium, but also is apparent in our dedication to providing high-end, hands-on internship experiences for budding marine scientists within our research departments.
As one of only a handful of Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities to host interns through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, Mote has built up a long history of providing experiences and tools for interns that prepare them for a STEM career. Mote’s interns participate in active research projects, prepare posters and presentations, and often are included in credits for peer-reviewed papers, all while working towards their degree and making connections in marine science. Over 200 research interns are hosted annually at Mote, and many go on to secure jobs in the field—including many Mote staff and Ph.D. scientists that began first as interns.
The missing piece has been a focus on underrepresented minorities—people who identify as African American or Black, Hispanic or Latinx, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Native America, and Alaskan Native—in STEM, specifically marine STEM fields.
Many scientific fields have low diversity along racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural lines, so they’re missing out on valuable perspectives. While 31 percent of the U.S. population comprises underrepresented minorities, they only receive 20 percent of degrees in STEM disciplines, and only 12 percent in marine STEM. In turn, many potential minority scientists don’t see a place for themselves in science, which offers few role models of similar backgrounds.
With Mote’s vast experience in internship opportunities in marine science, it became apparent the need to hone in on supporting underrepresented minorities in their journey to becoming a marine scientist, with a focus on expanded recruitment, active support during their internship, and retention through networks of interns and mentors alike.
To accomplish this, in 2019, Mote became the first non-university institution to become the lead for one of the seven NSF Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Centers of Excellence in the U.S., establishing the Marine Science Laboratory Alliance Center of Excellence (MarSci-LACE). It is co-funded by the NSF Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (NSF INCLUDES) initiative. Mote’s partners include The College of the Florida Keys (CFK), State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota (SCF), Smithsonian Marine Science Station (SMS), and Perry Institute for Marine Science (PIMS).
The ultimate goal of MarSci-LACE is to implement a paradigm-changing approach for increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in marine STEM careers, including technology and natural resource fields that have high demands for a skilled workforce. To achieve this critical goal, MarSci-LACE serves as a nexus training, resource, and supporting partner to other independent marine research institutions, degree granting institutions, LSAMP students, science mentors, and faculty.
The MarSci-LACE team includes:
Video production by WAEVY Films
Despite the adjustments that needed to be made to the internship program due to COVID-19, the MarSci-LACE team successfully hosted fifteen interns and trained more than 40 Mote staff and mentors in its first year while collecting and analyzing data that will help reduce barriers between underrepresented minority communities and marine science disciplines that need their insights.
To address the challenges facing underrepresented minorities in marine science, the MarSci-LACE team assembled a curriculum and mentor-education program designed to help the incoming interns excel in experiential science based on Mote’s REU model.
This first MarSci-LACE internship curriculum was informed by peer-reviewed literature, the experiences of Mote staff, and interviews with 47 underrepresented minority scientists, and it became apparent that a strong science identity—seeing yourself as a “science person”—is critical for retaining students in STEM fields. Additionally, cultivating a sense of belonging to the science community is also essential for success.
In order to build this sense of science identity and sense of belonging, the MarSci-LACE internship experience focuses on three core pillars: guidance from a mentor, hands-on experiential learning, and professional and personal support. With the hands-on learning aspect already refined after years of experience hosting REU interns, the MarSci-LACE team turned towards building both the professional skills and the affective factors shown to be critical in STEM retention, as well as developing the mentorship skills of their mentors.
Additionally, there is a focus on the development of other essential skills needed for the students to perform well in a future career. MarSci-LACE coordinators hosted a variety of workshops and webinars to train interns in critical skills such as resume writing, networking, creating scientific posters and presentations, and more. A career panel provided an opportunity for students to interact with current underrepresented minority scientists, and an intern resource guide was created to boost an intern’s confidence in adjusting to life in a research lab—for most, this was their first internship and hands-on research opportunity.
Mentor training has also been a powerful facet of MarSci-LACE. Mentors had the option to attend formal mentor development workshops as well as engage in informal monthly meetings to discuss mentoring practices as part of a new Mentor Alliance. More than 40 Mote staff members and partner institution staff have attended the mentor development workshops. Trainings helped mentors select, set expectations for, and engage with their students—all while honoring diverse communication styles and avoiding biases that can lead to unequal treatment of minority students, first-generation college students, and people from difficult socioeconomic circumstances. Ally Skills Workshops helped participants recognize their own privilege and marginalized communities.
While many LSAMP programs are focused on direct student support and training, Centers of Excellence, such as MarSci-LACE, are networks focused on research around creating best practices and resources for supporting underrepresented minorities that can be disseminated to other institutions hosting interns and students. Therefore, at its core, MarSci-LACE is a research-based initiative, relying on data to continually inform and adjust internship best practices.
The interns were surveyed pre and post internship, in addition to participating in an exit interview, as part of a multi-point data-collection effort designed to benefit them and future students and mentors.
As an example of some initial outcomes, as part of the pre and post surveys, students were asked to select from a series of overlapping circles labeled “me” and “science person.” Before the internships, they generally selected circles with only slight overlaps. After their internships, the students chose circles with some of the biggest possible overlaps. Through MarSci-LACE, the students strengthened their identities as “science people.” Just as exciting, 100 percent of interns reported a positive, comfortable, and transformative experience, with an increased sense of belonging and confidence in doing science.
Data is also being collected from the mentors, both around the mentor development and their mentorship practice. About two-thirds of program mentors gained significantly more confidence in their mentor and ally skills. Additionally, with continuous feedback from mentors throughout the trainings, the MarSci-LACE team has been able to create new mentor protocols and mentor-intern resources in order to build a repertoire of standardized support materials that can be used in mentor-intern relationships even outside of the MarSci-LACE program.
Giandria Green studied phytoplankton, the microscopic marine algae that drive many essential processes in the ocean and also include toxin-producing species such as the Florida red tide algae, Karenia brevis. She had never participated in an internship before and felt that her first months of being at Mote were difficult, but with the support of her mentor and other lab members, she became comfortable in this space.
By the end of her summer 2020 internship, she asked to extend it for another semester and Mote staff members were grateful to support her stay in MarSci-LACE through fall 2020.
In her second semester, her interest in marine science blossomed. She switched her major from computer science to biotechnology with a special interest in the cell culture process she learned at Mote. As a result of her internship, Green was hired as a staff scientist by Mote’s Phytoplankton Ecology Program.
She provides an exciting example of what students can achieve when provided a supportive opportunity in marine science.
The MarSci-LACE team is now investigating how to build on the initial first-year findings and how other institutions can replicate this year’s success. MarSci-LACE team members are planning to replicate and expand their programming at Smithsonian and Perry when COVID-19 conditions allow interns to engage there. In the meantime, Mote staff are evaluating their multiple data streams, expanding on successful programming, and planning innovative strategies to share best practices with other independent marine research institutions and LSAMP institutions around the U.S.
MarSci-LACE is supported by NSF Award Number 1922351. Learn more at marscilace.org.
Hero photo: Mote staff, with help from an intern, collect water samples at Mote's dock and process them in Dr. Vincent Lovko's lab. Pictured (from left): MarSci-LACE intern Niky Roblero; Giandria Green, former MarSci-LACE intern and now Mote staff. Photo Credit: © Mote Marine Laboratory
Aly Busse is the associate vice president for education at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.
Dr. Michael P. Crosby is the president and chief executive officer at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.