Black in Marine Science is building a community

Postdoc Camille Gaynus of the School of Arts & Sciences and colleagues formed a nonprofit dedicated to lifting up Black voices in marine science and inspiring a new generation to follow their curiosity about the ocean.

Camille Gaynus had long felt at home in the water, and her parents passed on a love of nature as well. But her career path in marine science truly crystallized while she was underwater in Indonesia the summer before her senior year of college. SCUBA diving in one of the most biodiverse coral reefs on the planet, she was awestruck by the spectacular life forms all around her.

“It was life-changing,” says Gaynus, now a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biology in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences working in faculty member Katie Barott’s laboratory studying algal biology. 

Camille Gaynus in scuba gear in the water with mountains in the background
A dive trip in Indonesia cemented Camille Gaynus’s desire to pursue a career in marine biology. Her hope is that Black in Marine Science helps normalize the idea of Black people pursuing their interest in the field. (Image: Courtesy of Camille Gaynus)

Gaynus had a positive experience as a high schooler in Penn’s Teen Research and Education in Environmental Science program, and supportive mentors during her undergraduate years at Hampton University, including a professor who paid her to work on marine research. She also pursued a research opportunity with the Diversity Project, during which she obtained SCUBA certification and completed her pivotal trip to Indonesia. But, being a Black woman, there have been many times she didn’t get the encouragement she needed professionally. “You’re in a field that historically has not necessarily even wanted you to be there,” she says.

Now Gaynus and a group of colleagues are working to change that. With Black in Marine Science (BIMS), an initiative that began as a social media hashtag and has evolved into a registered nonprofit organization, they aim to showcase the expertise of Black marine scientists while stoking children’s curiosity in the ocean environment. Already they’ve launched two YouTube television series and built a growing network of scientists. Their future goals are even more ambitious.

“We wanted to have a space that says, ‘We’re welcoming you here,’” Gaynus says. “But we also want the scientific world to say, ‘Hey, check out what they’re doing over there.’” 

Rallying together

Last May, after Christian Cooper was the target of racial harassment while birdwatching, the hashtag #BlackBirdersWeek began trending on Twitter. Other scientific fields followed suit—Black in Neuro, Black in Micro—developing initiatives calling attention to Black expertise that too frequently goes unrecognized. In August, Tiara Moore, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington, shared a tweet calling for a week devoted to Black people in marine science. 

Gaynus had met Moore at Hampton when Moore was a graduate student and the two spent more time together during their overlapping doctoral work at the University of California, Los Angeles. Soon after, Moore, Gaynus, friends, and colleagues, including fellow marine scientists and Hampton alumnae Jeanette Davis and Symone Bailey, began talking about working on a a similar intiative for their field.

“We were having conversations with one another and, unfortunately, when we talk about being a Black person in America today, there’s a lot of overlap in our negative experiences,” Gaynus says. “We wanted to show that being Black in marine science is something positive, while also letting our peers know that we do these things, that for us it’s normal to be Black people in the ocean.”

With Moore at the helm, Gaynus and colleagues raised funds to pay speakers and developed a week of events covering everything from how to care for your hair and skin when you spend considerable time in the ocean to how to develop your brand as a scientist. For their purposes, they intentionally defined Black as “people who have melanated skin,” Gaynus says, folding in various groups that have been historically marginalized in scientific fields.

The events were well-received and the group’s fundraising so successful that they started thinking about what other impact they could have with their efforts. “We wanted to start to create a support system and to continue to interact with our community—both our scientific community and future generations,” Gaynus says. 

Their first major endeavor has been launching two YouTube series. One is “BIMS Bites,” which targets young people with kid-friendly, 5-minute explanations of different ocean science topics. The other is “BIMS DIVES,” offering more in-depth conversations among a panel of marine scientists covering timely topics related to the marine world.

A YouTube screenshot of the program BIMS Bites, saying "Dr. Camille Gaynus takes a bite out of Marine Biodiversity"
Gaynus and her colleagues developed two YouTube series as part of Black in Marine Science, including BIMS Bites, geared at informing children about marine topics in a fun and engaging way. (Image: Black in Marine Science)

The leadership team of BIMS, which has since registered as an official nonprofit organization in the state of Washington, feels strongly that their work in this area is valuable and should be compensated accordingly. “I’m asked to do a lot of free labor, especially when it comes to diversity, and we don’t want to perpetuate that,” says Gaynus. “So we pay every video contributor an honorarium.” The organization also has a database on the web platform Padlet, available to community members, listing paid opportunities in marine science, including speaking engagements, internships, and full-time jobs.

‘Grand plans’

In the future, BIMS hopes to continue growing and evolving. One goal is to establish a BIMS Institute, in Hampton, Virginia, an area where people of color make up a significant fraction of the population. 

“When you look at the top destinations for marine science, they’re in regions where there is not a lot of diversity,” Gaynus says. “We want a place where Black marine science can thrive, where people of color can feel comfortable and truly be their full selves.”

If they succeed, they hope to also open the doors of the institute to the community, encouraging public participation in research and fostering a widespread appreciation of the marine environment, for Hampton in particular, the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.

“We have some very grand plans,” says Gaynus. “And they can be defined by three main goals: continue to support our members, inspire the next generation of scientists, irrespective of their color, and bring research to the community where they live.”

Camille Gaynus is a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Biology.