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A Grand Challenge That Rivals the Rising Seas: Creating a Culture of Diversity in Ocean Science The USF College of Marine Science began its fight for increased ethnic diversity in oceanography 20 years ago. There is a lot underway, and a lot more to do.

By: Kristen M. Kusek

Students learn in any introductory ocean science class that a diverse ocean—one that is home to a colorful kaleidoscope of life—is a productive, healthy, and resilient ocean. Similarly, research laboratories that include a spectrum of voices are more productive than those that do not.

But go to any ocean science conference and it’s clear: people of color are hard to find.

According to a recent piece in Nature Geoscience, little progress has been made in the last 40 years to diversify geoscience. The geosciences, which include ocean science, are the least diverse STEM field. In 2016, a whopping 85 percent of those who earned PhDs in a geoscience field were white. That number has remained the same since the dawn of the 1980s – when most phones were tethered wall fixtures, music was played from reels of magnetic tape, and Windows could open and close but didn’t have anything to do with computers.

Given that everything else has evolved over the last several decades, how has STEM diversity remained so stubbornly stagnant? The statistics are tough to accept, especially at a time when a diversity of perspectives is critical to humanity’s ability to solve the grand challenges facing our planet today.

“Our College, in collaboration with the College of Engineering, has a good record of working to improve diversity in STEM, in ways that have been recognized externally,” said David Naar, PhD, associate dean of academic programs and student affairs.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently rated USF as the top institution in the nation in awarding marine science PhD degrees to Hispanic/Latino and African-American/Black students, and number two for master’s degrees. USF was also selected as one of eight University Center for Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM) programs nationwide that is recognized by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Within this elite group, USF is the only one that is not yet a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU).

Although we have made great strides, we still have a lot more work to do,” said Naar, who has been at the USF College of Marine Science for 30 years.

This year, about 12 percent of the College’s student body are from traditionally underrepresented groups. That’s better than the percentage of underrepresented groups at science conferences (5-10 percent) and better than many other marine science schools, but still not good enough, Naar said.

Averaging out the statistics over the past 15 years, the College of Marine Science has grown its diversity from about two percent to an average 15 percent of the student body. Its best year on record in this regard was 2013, when it awarded seven of 14 PhD degrees to students of color who identify as African American or Black, Hispanic or Latino, Pacific Islanders, Native American, or Alaska Native.

A Welcomed Perfect Storm

The College’s fight to improve STEM diversity started in the early 2000s when then Dean Peter Betzer, PhD, set forth a goal: to create a pipeline of graduate students from underrepresented groups who would go on to become faculty in the ocean sciences who continue to advocate for underrepresented students in other locations.

Step one was to hire African American faculty members on its own staff, including Ashanti Pyrtle, PhD, who was one of the first African Americans to earn a doctoral degree in oceanography from Texas A&M University. While no longer at USF, Pyrtle (whose last name is now Johnson) played a pivotal role in helping Betzer to launch a perfect -- and perfectly welcomed -- storm of support involving the National Science Foundation (NSF), the St. Petersburg business community, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

In 2004, they secured $972,000 in NSF support that enabled the College of Marine Science, in partnership with the USF College of Engineering, to launch the Florida-Georgia Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (FGLSAMP) Bridge to the Doctorate fellowship program. The fellowship still exists today: it provides $32,000 per year that covers full tuition, fees, health insurance, and a monthly stipend for up to two years for new STEM graduate students.

Since those early days, USF has landed eight major NSF awards totaling more than $8 million that have enabled the College of Marine Science and College of Engineering to support more than 100 underrepresented graduate students. The most recent award covering the years 2019-2021 was for $1,087,000.

At roughly the same time as NSF’s inaugural Bridge to the Doctorate grant, Betzer led a parallel effort at the College of Marine Science to launch a Bridge to the Doctorate Endowed Fellowship to help support underrepresented students in perpetuity. The tendrils of these early funding efforts are still felt today, more than 15 years later.

A DC-based nonprofit, the Joint Oceanographic Institutions, Inc. (later known as the Consortium for Ocean Leadership), helped Betzer kick off the endowment with five years of support. This laid the foundation for significant additional support from St. Petersburg’s business community. Between 2005 and 2008 the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, for example, made four gifts to the endowment totaling nearly $160,000. Soon, 25 additional community partners and donors from St. Petersburg joined the effort. These contributions also helped the College qualify for a state funding match.

The St. Petersburg business community has played a significant role in the history of the College of Marine Science -- from providing critical support that ensured the College became the home for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in 1988, to helping to secure state funding for its joint use facility with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in the early 1990s, supporting a long list of student fellowships such as the Bridge to the Doctorate endowed fellowship discussed here, and more.

The swell of support – especially from the St. Petersburg business community – drew the attention of the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has long advocated for equity and inclusion in STEM. After conducting a formal review of the College’s diversity program, in 2007 the Sloan Foundation agreed to provide additional funding that would continue for the next 15 years. For every fellowship supported by the Sloan Foundation, the College of Marine Science would provide additional funding via its endowed fellowship.

“The recognition from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation would never have come without the substantial backing of our St Petersburg business community,” Betzer said.
The original certificate from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, fished up from the vaults at the USF College of Marine Science.

Today USF is one of only eight University Center for Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM) Programs nationwide that is recognized by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Altogether, the Sloan Foundation Minority PhD initiative (2005-2023) has awarded nearly $4 million to USF primarily as direct scholarship payments to minority doctoral students for augmented stipends and professional development enhancement funds, along with discretionary funds to assist with programmatic expenses. The Bridge to the Doctorate Endowment at the College of Marine Science is valued at more than $1.3 million, enabling it to support 1-2 graduate students from underrepresented groups every year – and its program has grown into a national model for diversity in STEM education.

The USF College of Marine Science thanks each of these generous donors who partnered with us to achieve a unique endowment that will support underrepresented students of color in perpetuity.

  • St. Pete Downtown Partnership
  • Hough Family Foundation
  • Joint Oceanographic Institutions, Inc.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Mark Mahaffey
  • The Tampa Bay Times
  • Drs. Peter and Susan Betzer
  • Mr. Michael Morris
  • Coda Octopus Group
  • Dr. Gus and Mrs. Frances Stavros
  • Drs. Luis and Carmen Garcia-Rubio
  • SRI International
  • Drs. Kent and Jane Fanning
  • Dr. Mark Luther
  • Mr. Ross Roeder and Ms. Mary Anne Reilly
  • USF Research Foundation

Fast Forward, and Full Steam Ahead

Today the College leverages a total of six funding streams that help support underrepresented graduate students, including Bridge to the Doctorate Endowment funding, NSF and Sloan funding, and the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship Program, which is funded by the Florida Education Fund. There are three budget lines supporting the Bridge to the Doctorate stream: one from NSF, one provided directly by the College of Marine Science, and the Bridge to the Doctorate Endowed Fellowship.

In 2017 the College, now recognized as a Sloan UCEM affiliate, hired Ana Arellano, PhD, as its diversity recruiter. She works closely with Sloan advisors and co-directors, David Naar, PhD, and Frank Muller-Karger, PhD, to continue to evolve the College’s diversity initiatives.

Ana Arellano, PhD, Diversity Recruiter, Instructor, and Chemical Oceanographer

Arellano was herself a recipient of the Endowed Bridge to the Doctorate and Sloan Minority PhD scholarship. She earned her doctorate in chemical oceanography in 2013.

“As a single mom of two young children, I could not have pursued my PhD without fellowship support,” she said. “It allowed me to focus on research, without stressing about finances.” Like many graduate students of color at the College of Marine Science, she benefited from a spectrum of fellowship support in addition to the Bridge to Doctorate.

Prior to boomeranging back to the USF College of Marine Science, Arellano completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Florida, where she was consistently involved in education and outreach initiatives at schools, fairs, museums, you name it. “It’s part of who I am,” Arellano said. “I’m really passionate about this work.”

In 2018 the College invited faculty from five minority serving institutions (MSIs), including Spelman College, Savannah State University, the University of the Virgin Islands, and Xavier University of Louisiana, to visit campus for three days. The goal, which was a component of the Sloan UCEM grant, was to foster collaborations that would help diversify the College’s enrollment, build reciprocal faculty partnerships with minority-serving institutions, and broaden the participation of minority students in the ocean sciences.

“It’s something we’d never done before, and it worked really well,” Arellano said.

The faculty members from these visiting institutions then recommended students who would participate in the College’s first Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program in the summer of 2019, a program that was led by Arellano, along with logistical and administrative support from Naar and Bernard Batson, diversity director in USF’s College of Engineering, who has been a partner in these efforts at USF for more than two decades.

The REU program provided five students with support that enabled them to spend ten weeks developing professional skills and studying marine science with faculty and graduate student mentors. The support included round-trip travel, housing expenses, a stipend, and conference funds to present at a professional meeting alongside their College of Marine Science mentor. It was funded by NSF supplements to existing research grants awarded to Dr. Larry Dishaw from the USF Morsani College of Medicine, as well as marine science professors Brad Rosenheim, PhD, Tim Conway, PhD, Amelia Shevenell, PhD, and Xinfeng Liang, PhD (now at the University of Delaware).

BACK ROW: REU student Richard Rivera, David Naar (USF College of Marine Science), Ojas Natarajan (Postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Larry Dishaw's lab), REU student Tione Grant, REU student Angel Cedeño; FRONT ROW: Celine Atkinson (Graduate student in Dr. Larry Dishaw's lab), REU student Jenelle DeVry, Shelby Mahank (Graduate student, USF St. Petersburg, who also works with Mya Breitbart in the USF College of Marine Science), Paige Boleman (USF St. Petersburg undergraduate student who worked in Mya Breitbart's lab), Hannah Leary (undergraduate student from the University of Texas at Austin who interned in the lab of Mark Luther at the USF College of Marine Science). Not shown: REU student Alexis Peterson.

The effort, aligned with recommendations by the Sloan Foundation, is another “intentional” approach to building a diverse PhD pipeline, Naar said.

“It was fantastic to see that three of the five REU students were subsequently admitted to USF,” he said. The College is now working on a new proposal to the NSF for a College-wide REU program in the summer of 2021 that would allow even more faculty to be involved as mentors.

Mentoring and Open Dialogue: Two Keys to Success

Today those students who are funded by the College’s diversity-focused fellowships meet as a group under Arellano’s leadership at least once a month. They complete individual professional development plans, give outreach-related presentations, and, as recommended by the Sloan Foundation, they benefit from a circle of mentors including their 1) research advisor, 2) a faculty member external to their discipline, 3) a peer mentor, and 4) an alumni trainee mentor that provides guidance on PhD expectations, networking, and career development.

Former Dean of the College of Marine Science, Jackie Dixon, PhD, and PhD student, Loraine Martell-Bonet, who received the Endowed Bridge to the Doctorate fellowship in 2019. Martell-Bonet, whose major professor is Robert Byrne, PhD, also won the Renate E. Bernstein Outstanding Authorship Award in 2020.

But underrepresented students aren’t the only ones who benefit at the College of Marine Science from this kind of mentoring, and the training and networking opportunities that come with it.

In February 2020 Arellano led the College in launching its Graduate Exemplary Mentoring (GEM) program that Naar founded in December of 2020 to institutionalize the best practices in mentoring inherited from the USF Sloan UCEM program. The GEM program is open to everyone – all students, faculty, and staff who may feel marginalized for any reason, or simply want to participate, Arellano said.

The GEM program is only the first of many steps the College of Marine Science will take to institutionalize the Sloan UCEM program in perpetuity. The work toward this goal started three years ahead of schedule, Naar said. It has also freed up Sloan funds and resources, which expire in 2023, to help diversify other STEM PhD programs within USF, such as within the College of Arts and Sciences on the USF Tampa Campus.

“Additional steps include making new partnerships with parallel efforts within the City of St. Petersburg and growing the Bridge to the Doctorate Endowment,” Naar said.

A key signature of the GEM programming is a series of regularly held virtual “Diversi-teas” conversations run by Arellano. These in-person, now virtual, events foster meaningful conversations about a rich spectrum of topics, such as the value of mentorship to imposter syndrome, mental health, and more. They routinely attract dozens of participants. These are confidential conversations, sometimes led by external facilitators and/or graduate students, that provide a safe place for all, Arellano said.

“It’s an opportunity for us to come together not to talk about science but to talk about problems or to share ideas,” she said. “Some people just listen in, others come with ideas, and all are welcome.”

In response to the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor – three individuals who have lost their lives to racial injustice, and whose deaths sparked a national movement – Arellano has also spearheaded a series on systemic racism.

"I believe our diversity program and its offerings are unique,” she said. “We’ve got to keep pushing ourselves to create new transformational changes in the traditional academic cultural norms.”

One key area for improvement is in diversifying faculty at the College of Marine Science, Naar said. He is working with Muller-Karger to update the College’s strategic plan so that it is more proactive in this regard and reflective of what Black and other colleagues of color state is needed (See, for example, this Nature article).

“But it requires more than just recruiting,” Naar said. “It requires mentoring, retention, and promotion of new faculty.”

Snapshots of three fellowship recipients: the ripple effect

We spoke with three of the past 22 recipients of the College of Marine Science’s Bridge to the Doctorate fellowship (who also received Sloan Foundation funding) to capture the longer-term impact of these formative opportunities. Our goal was to showcase the “ripple effect” and esprit de corps that can happen as each recipient of the College’s diversity-related fellowships gives back to his, her, or their community in unique ways.

REGINA EASLEY: paying it forward

Regina Easley, PhD, didn’t really like chemistry as a young student growing up in southern Virginia where both of her parents grew up working on tobacco farms. Today, with three chemistry degrees in her dossier, she works as a research chemist at the innovation-focused National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST), housed within the US Department of Commerce in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Easley graduated from the College of Marine Science in 2013 under the tutelage of chemical oceanographer Robert Byrne, PhD. She is a passionate activist for STEM diversity initiatives, the importance of mentoring, and the need to pay it forward. She walks the talk -- routinely delivering invited conference talks; participating in the FabFems speaker’s bureau for women in STEM and STEMversity, a program for middle and high school students in rural Georgia; conference presenter for the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE); mentoring graduate students; and more.

Opportunities like the NSF FGLSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate Fellowship and Sloan Foundation Minority Graduate Scholarship do so much more than provide the critical financial support so many deserving students need, Easley said. It “opens you up to a world that’s beyond where you currently sit,” she said. “It can give people a hope and a vision that’s beyond what they’re used to seeing.”

Enjoy these short video snippets from a Microsoft Teams call we recently conducted with Easley:

Video 1 - Easley shares the power of field research experience, which she gained on a research expedition to the Arctic!

Video 2 - Easley shares more about the power of the investment in these kinds of fellowships.

Video 3 - Easley shares why this fellowship program matters today, more than ever.

KARYNA ROSARIO: the importance of having a voice

Karyna Rosario, PhD, grew up in the Central Mountain Range of Puerto Rico where she nurtured a love for the natural world thanks to her Dad who loves animals (Karyna describes him as “animal crazy”). During her bachelor’s program, which she earned at the University of Puerto Rico, she participated in an REU program run by Western Washington University that exposed her to marine science. She and the other REU students spent six months at the Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes, Washington.

Rosario graduated from USF in 2010, and now works as a research scientist in the marine genomics lab run by Mya Breitbart, PhD, at the USF College of Marine Science. She crafted the NSF grant that transitioned her into her current role with Breitbart – a project examining viruses in invertebrates – one that, at nearly $1 million, was worth far more than the costs associated with her fellowship at USF.

“I wouldn’t have considered a PhD without the NSF/USF Bridge to the Doctorate fellowships and Sloan Foundation Graduate Scholarship at USF,” she said. The financial support was critical in her ability to even consider this path. “It took such a weight off.”

Rosario emphasized the power of mentorship for underrepresented students. She’s quick to thank her advisor, Breitbart, for playing a key role in her education success. “Even though Mya was only two years older than me when I started, she seemed at the time like a great mentor. She was supportive of me from the get-go and treated me more like a colleague than a student. That was huge for me,” she said. “She always makes me feel like I have a voice.”

Students of color working in marine science often feel isolated and don’t always feel like they belong, Rosario said. “The fellowship really helps you to feel like you belong because you know you have an advocate in your corner.”

These days Rosario mentors other students in Breitbart’s lab as much as she can. Enjoy her recent TEDxYouth talk called “Water, Viruses, and Good Intentions.”

MICHELLE GUITARD: the power of perspectives (and publishing)

The NSF FGLSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate fellowship was critical in Michelle Guitard’s ability to earn her master’s degree in marine science from USF in 2015. With support from the Sloan Foundation Minority PhD graduate scholarship and McKnight Doctoral Fellowship program, she’s now pursuing her PhD in geological oceanography under the advisement of Amelia Shevenell, PhD, and plans to graduate this year.

Guitard grew up in southern California, where it’s fairly easy to fall for the ocean. She felt lucky to have been supported in her early passions for body surfing, digging in the sand, and eventually pursuing a college degree in oceanography by her parents, who were also natural STEM advocates; her Mom is a nurse and Dad is an electrical engineer.

“But graduate school was a different story,” Guitard said. “With the loans I had from undergrad, I absolutely couldn’t afford to go to graduate school without the Bridge to the Doctorate fellowship.”

Being able to trek to Antarctica as a master’s student to help reconstruct the history of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet was “beyond my wildest dreams,” she said. She returned to the Southern Ocean as a PhD student as part of an Integrated Ocean Drilling Project (IODP) expedition in 2019. In total she has more than 100 days at sea in the Southern Ocean.

Guitard said her hometown in southern California was ethnically diverse, as was Hilo, where she did her undergraduate work (at the University of Hawaii). “It actually wasn’t until I got to USF and St. Petersburg that diversity in the sciences became something to think about.” She’s quick to point out that the faculty, students, and marine science community were welcoming and supportive.

“It’s just that very few people looked like me,” she said.

Upon experiencing her first conference in Goa, India, itself a diverse, internationally popular tourist destination, she said it became obvious that scientists of the same nationality tended to stick together. “Many of the Americans at that conference didn’t look like me,” she said.

“Science is not purely objective,” Guitard said. “It’s all about perspective, and you can’t separate who you are as a human from who you are as a scientist. It all affects how we work and approach questions, and there’s no doubt that more diverse perspectives will solve more problems.”

As a PhD student, Guitard makes time to contribute her voice to the conversation about STEM diversity via the printed word.

“I enjoy contributing what I can,” she said, “but I want this to be clear: yes, I’m underrepresented as a Hispanic woman in science. But my perspective and story reflect just one person – my own unique experiences.”

Enjoy two of Guitard’s recent diversity-related pieces here:

“A diverse set of perspectives is critical to elevating the geoscience community, but perspective extends beyond one’s ethnic background or gender identity. It comes from our natural curiosity, our sense of duty to a community, and our concern for the planet. Who we are informs how we conduct ourselves in science; a scientist’s perspective cannot exist without their culture, their values, or their abilities. Perhaps with this shift in thought, we can broaden our thinking and increase our problem-solving abilities to ultimately benefit our research and society.” – Michelle Guitard, Geoscientist

General Resources

Chicanos/Hispanic/Mexican

Native Americans

  • Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS)

Blacks/African Americans

  • National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE)
  • African American Women in Technology (AAWIT)
  • National Association of Black Geoscientists (NABG)
  • National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE)

Indian

  • American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES)

Asian

  • Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers (SASE)

Differently Abled / Disabilities

  • Association of Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)
  • Braille through Remote Learning (BRL)
  • Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA)
  • Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT)

LGBTQ

Women