Scientist Carlee Jackson, a co-founder of Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS), records data and makes observations during a nurse shark survey in Belize.

Building a community and fostering a love for sharks

Four Black female scientists team up to create an organization to amplify diverse voices in the field of shark science.

Scientist Carlee Jackson, a co-founder of Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS), records data and makes observations during a nurse shark survey in Belize.
Photograph by Carlee Jackson

Carlee Jackson was six years old when she fell in love with sharks. She was at a book fair with her mother when she spotted a volume with a shark on the cover and had to have it. By the age of 13, she had read all the shark books in her neighborhood library. This was in Detroit, hundreds of miles from the ocean; her parents figured she’d outgrow the obsession. It never happened.

Jackson eventually found her way to the sea, earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Florida Atlantic University. Sharks still called to her, but it wasn’t until Jackson was in graduate school for marine science that she finally got close to one.

“When we pulled up our first shark, I was in awe. It was a lemon shark,” she says, recalling the day she and her fellow graduate students were off the coast of Broward County, Florida. They captured the shark and secured it to the side of the boat. The students then took fin and skin samples, determined its sex, and measured it. Finally, they put an identification tag on the animal. “I just remember thinking, this is exactly what I want to do,” she says.

For her graduate research, Jackson set out to fill in some gaps in scientific literature on how tourism that lures Atlantic nurse sharks with food affects their behavior. These slow-moving, bottom-dwelling sharks of coastal waters are considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to habitat loss and overfishing in some parts of the species’s range. Jackson spent two months with a marine tourism group in Caye Caulker, Belize, monitoring the behavior of nurse sharks to learn how daily feedings by humans affected their behavior. She filmed the sharks with GoPro cameras, then analyzed the footage by assigning codes for specific swimming behaviors and interactions with boats and humans.

Jackson found that nurse sharks, which are typically active only at night, were altering their behavior to take advantage of the food being offered during the day. They had become habituated to humans and attracted to the sound of boat engines, which they associated with food, placing them at greater risk of being struck by boat propellers. But tourism has a silver lining, Jackson says. The popular nurse shark is one of the species currently protected under Belizean law. (Another is the huge and gentle whale shark, the world’s largest fish.)

(Great white sharks may change their color to sneak up on prey.)

All along her journey into shark science—whether watching shark documentaries on television as a child or pursuing her graduate research—Jackson has felt secure in her passion for sharks. But there weren’t any Black shark scientists she could find to follow, not even on TV. “It was sometimes hard for me to picture myself in the field and look up to anyone,” Jackson says. “I kind of just felt like I was on my own.”

Scientists unite

It took an incident that had nothing to do with sharks to help Jackson find a community. In the spring of 2020, a Black man named Chris Cooper, who was birding in Central Park, asked a white woman to leash her dog (in accordance with the park’s posted rules). When she refused, Cooper, a board member of the New York City Audubon, began taking a video of the interaction. The woman called the police, hysterically telling them several times that “an African American man” was threatening her.

The video went viral, and the outcry was swift: Twitter was soon humming with posts under the hashtag #BlackInNature. A stream of photos and personal stories emerged, each meant to upend stereotypes that Black people don’t enjoy nature.

One of those voices belonged to Jasmin Graham, a shark scientist who specializes in sawfish and other threatened shark and ray species. She posted photos of herself outdoors—including with a shark on a research boat. “I spend a lot of time on the water. It’s my happy place and I get anxious when I’ve been away from the sea for too long,” Graham tweeted.

In a matter of days, Graham found other Black shark scientists on Twitter and felt an immediate sense of relief and solidarity: “I always felt so alone being a Black field biologist and only knowing a handful of others who look like me,” Graham said in a subsequent tweet. “#BlackInNature has allowed me to meet so many more of you and I didn’t know how bad I needed a community until I had one.”

Not the only one

Before long, Graham found Jackson and two other shark lovers on Twitter: Amani Webber-Schultz, a doctoral student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology who studies shark morphology and biomechanics, and Jaida Elcock, a doctoral student in the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program who studies movement ecology and habitat use. The four scientists joked about forming a club for Black women in shark science.

(Quiz: How well do you actually know sharks?)

It didn’t take long before the new friends took the idea seriously. They soon met on Zoom, and a flurry of organizing followed. Less than a month after Cooper’s encounter in Central Park, the four were ready. Minorities in Shark Sciences, or MISS, launched on Juneteenth—the holiday commemorating the freedom of enslaved people at the end of the Civil War. They raised $15,000 in their first week, mostly from small individual donations.

MISS’s formal goals are to promote diversity and inclusion in the study of sharks and to help women and gender minorities of color push through barriers as they contribute to marine science. “We didn’t want anyone else to feel the way we did growing up, with no representation in our field,” Jackson says.

Beneath their stated mission lies a powerful sense of newfound solidarity. When she met the other founders, Jackson says, “It was like a big weight off my chest.” She remembers thinking, “I’m not the only one.”

Expanding opportunities

As of late 2021, the organization had more than 360 members representing 34 countries. All are women or gender minorities of color, but they vary in other ways. Some are early-career scientists; some are tenure-track professors; others practice environmental law or work in government. There are undergraduates and high school students; a handful are parents who joined on behalf of their middle schoolers.

MISS operates across several platforms. Among its major priorities is a mentorship program, which pairs promising members with scientists and provides funding for research or equipment. On social media, MISS hosts fundraisers and engages followers with weekly #SharktasticSaturday trivia questions. And an active members-only Slack channel—with roughly a thousand messages a month, Graham says—enables candid discussions on anything related to shark science or being a person of color in a field that is mostly white.

A major priority for the organization is helping its budding scientists get hands-on experience with sharks in a field where unpaid internships are common, says Webber-Schultz. (She points out that she had to pay for a course to learn the basics of shark research, such as catching the animals and taking blood and tissue samples.) MISS offers free workshops in partnership with the Field School, an interdisciplinary marine science training and education program in Miami, as well as fellowships for research experiences at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and other shark science organizations. In addition, 60 Friends of MISS—people who don’t identify as women or gender minorities of color—support the organization in mentoring and sharing job opportunities.

(Sharks form years-long "friendships," dispelling the "lone shark" myth.)

Making these opportunities more accessible is an important step toward inclusiveness, says Catherine Macdonald, a National Geographic Explorer and co-founder and director of the Field School. Field experiences “can be quite magical,” Macdonald says. “But they’re also part of the process by which the scientific community can communicate who is and who isn’t welcome, and who doesn’t belong.”

A diverse pool of scientists can also make shark science better, MISS’s founders say. “It creates a wider net of possibilities for how to approach science and solve problems,” says Webber-Schultz. Research suggests this is true: Collaboration among diverse scientists—by gender, ethnicity, or nationality, for instance—allows scientific organizations to gain an “innovation dividend” that can open doors to more discoveries, according to a 2017 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.

Following the questions

Graham moved around a lot as a kid, but her family’s home base was always her paternal grandmother’s house in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The Graham family were fishers for generations; the ocean shaped their lives, especially as a source of sustenance.

(The surprising ways sharks keep the ocean healthy.)

As Graham grew, she began to ask questions about the ocean and marine life—Why are these fish here? Why are they here at this time of year? —that went beyond the sea as a provider. Her father encouraged her questions. “There were very few things I could always get a ‘yes’ to, but if I said, ‘I want this book,’” my dad would get me that book,” says Graham, who is now the project coordinator for the MarSci-LACE project, led by Mote Marine Laboratory, which is focused on researching and promoting best practices to recruit, support, and retain minority students in marine science.

As the years passed, Graham’s interest in scientific inquiry deepened. In middle school, she learned about the scientific method. In high school, she saved up to attend MarineQuest, a marine science summer program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “That’s where I learned that I could do marine science as a job,” Graham says. “All these questions? There are people who get paid trying to get the answers.”

Graham went on to attend the College of Charleston. There, a professor hired her to work in his laboratory on a project researching the evolution of hammerhead sharks, a family of sharks found in temperate and tropical waters worldwide and known for their mallet-shaped heads. Graham spent three years on that project: “That experience is why I became a shark scientist,” she says. She later earned a master’s degree in biology from Florida State University.

Her research focuses on the ecology of sawfish—a kind of ray with an elongated snout—and the evolution of hammerheads. In both families of animals, all or a majority of their species are listed as threatened by the IUCN Red List, Graham says. “I’m very interested in animals with weird heads,” she adds.

It’s the hammerheads that present some of the most challenging research questions. There are nine species of hammerheads; the largest is the great hammerhead, which can grow up to 20 feet (6 m) in length and weigh up to 1,000 pounds (454 kg). Trying to figure out how hammerheads are all related has been difficult: “All my work has given me conflicting answers, and we’re only marginally closer to understanding,” Graham says. But it’s a question worth answering. Graham continues: “To understand and appreciate the value and importance of something, you have to understand the history behind it. How it came to be, and why.”

(The most fascinating shark discoveries of the past decade.)

The global picture

Although the majority of MISS’s members are in the United States, roughly 30 percent live in foreign countries. This wide base aligns with the organization’s mission of inclusion and opportunity, but it also helps to expand scientific knowledge about sharks—particularly those species about which little is known. Helping independent scientists in developing countries get their foot in the door is “the right thing to do with shark science,” Graham says. “We need their input.” In many cases, she says, these scientists live in the communities they study and have strong relationships with local fishers; all their data comes directly from fishers, who often let scientists onto their boats. “For a lot of countries, there’s essentially no granular data on shark and ray landing,” Macdonald adds. “So even just showing up and being able to identify species and count them is a meaningful contribution to our understanding.”

One of MISS’s international members is ‘Lara Fola-Matthews, a researcher at the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research who is also a doctoral student at the University of Lagos. Every couple of weeks for the last several years, Fola-Matthews has received a call when the fishing boats are about to land with their catch. She gathers her tools—a tape measure, a scale, scissors, as well as an ice chest, identification guides, and data sheets—and some homemade fried chicken, rice, and stew for the fishers. She and a student helper hop in a chartered taxi and make their way to the jetty.

The fishers aim to catch shrimp, crabs, and a variety of different fish, not sharks. But when they do haul in a shark, they keep it and let Fola-Matthews do her work before selling the shark meat to fishmongers, many of whom smoke it and sell it in the market. Fola-Matthews measures each dead shark—usually scalloped hammerheads, milk sharks, or common smoothhounds, she says—and then weighs it, snips a tiny bit of tissue from the first dorsal fin, and takes photos. If there are small sharks she can fit into her ice chest, she buys them. When she’s finished, everything goes back to her laboratory and straight into the freezer. There they stay, more than 250 frozen samples as of late 2021.

When it comes to identifying the shark species in Nigeria’s waters, Fola-Matthews doesn’t have much to go on. Published research on Nigeria’s shark fisheries is thin; resources and technology to amplify that knowledge are scant. She has been able to find only one list, published in 1993, detailing the 15 species of sharks and rays occurring in Nigerian waters. In her sampling so far, she’s seen just a handful of species from that list, including bull sharks and thresher sharks—considered vulnerable by the IUCN—and bluntnose sixgill sharks.

(What the world’s largest sharks, crocs, and spiders can tell scientists.)

A helping hand

Dismayed by the dearth of knowledge but determined to stay abreast of discoveries and emerging technologies, in 2019 Fola-Matthews joined the American Elasmobranch Society, a professional organization for shark scientists. Before long, she heard about MISS and signed up. 

In 2021, the organization selected Fola-Matthews for its mentorship program. She’s been paired with a Ugandan geneticist, Daphne Nyachaki Bitalo, who’s teaching her the basics of genetic sequencing via weekly Zoom calls. With the stipend she received for research and equipment, Fola-Matthews bought a much-needed new laptop and revived research on her Ph.D. project, which had been stalled for lack of funds.

“MISS is one of the best things so far that has happened in my scientific life,” she says. “It’s a beautiful community where we are free to ask questions, to meet with people; when you have a problem, immediately there’s someone you can talk to.” With help from her stipend, Fola-Matthews was finally able to send off 100 shark samples to a lab for genetic sequencing. The DNA bar coding analysis will identify each animal to the species level—something that can be hard to do based on physical characteristics alone, as some species closely resemble one another. The analysis will also help to determine whether threatened or endangered species of sharks are being sold at fish markets, which is valuable information for fisheries managers looking to conserve certain species.

(Ocean shark populations are tanking. This is how fast.)

Fola-Matthews is eager for the results. She plans to publish her findings, present her research at conferences, and amplify the thin research record on Nigeria’s sharks. With time and careful study, she hopes, these elusive animals may cease to be a mystery.

Watch Candace Fields in “World’s Biggest Hammerhead?” on National Geographic as a team of shark biologists use a variety of techniques and technologies in the Bahamas and the Florida Keys to find the biggest of these unusually shaped sharks.
SharkFest is back! Beginning July 10, viewers can sink their teeth into new shows featuring captivating science and stunning visuals of the iconic apex predators. Camo Sharks airs July 10 at 10/9c as part of SharkFest on National Geographic or Disney+.

Portions of this work have previously appeared in Sharks: Rulers of the Deep.
Copyright © 2022 National Geographic Partners, LLC.
To learn more, check out Sharks. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.

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