EMILY KWONG, HOST:
Let me ask you something. Were you the first in your family to do something - maybe go to college, buy a home or work in a new industry? Being a trailblazer is hard. It's exciting, but it takes a lot of courage. Jasmin Graham is one of those people. She knew when she was young that she wanted to be a marine biologist, and then she became one who specialized in shark research. But being one of the only Black women in her field was difficult. So Graham decided to create opportunities for other women of color in shark sciences.
We're bringing you this encore as part of a week of programming to honor Black scientists for Black History Month. This episode aired last summer, and it was led by our awesome former host, Maddie Sofia.
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MADDIE SOFIA: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
Shark scientist Jasmin Graham grew up in a family big on fishing.
JASMIN GRAHAM: Most of our diet is seafood, so it's obviously super important for sustenance and everything for my family.
SOFIA: And when she was little, mealtime was a chance to feed her appetite and her curiosity.
GRAHAM: I was that weird person that was asking questions like, what do the fish do when they're not on our plate? They're living out in the ocean. They have whole lives. What's going on? And, you know, my family would be like, you're asking a lot of questions. Just eat the fish.
SOFIA: It wasn't until after a high school trip that Jasmin learned there was an entire field of study devoted to this stuff - marine science.
GRAHAM: And I was like, wait a minute, wait a minute, hold the phone. People get paid to...
GRAHAM: ...Play with fish and ask all these questions that I've been trying to ask for years?
SOFIA: They sure do. Jasmin eventually got a bachelor's degree in marine biology, where she studied the evolution of hammerhead sharks. Later, for her master's, she focused on the critically endangered smalltooth sawfish. Imagine an elongated stingray with a chainsaw blade welded to its face.
GRAHAM: They are wild. Yep, they are...
SOFIA: So fun.
GRAHAM: ...Weird-looking things.
SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, I love a good ray. I love a good ray. I just don't see that many rays - like, looking like (laughter) a sawfish, you know what I mean?
GRAHAM: Yeah, they're definitely weirdos.
GRAHAM: That's why I love them.
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SOFIA: But Jasmin says making her way through this field she loves could also be extremely isolating.
GRAHAM: That whole experience, I had never met another Black woman that studied sharks, and I had only met one Black woman in marine science, period - that I met when I was 23 years old. So going, your - almost your whole childhood and young adult life without seeing someone that looks like you doing what you want to do - I mean, as cool as we say, like, breaking the glass ceiling is...
GRAHAM: ...That is a really lonely experience.
SOFIA: Last year, that changed for Jasmin. Through the hashtag #BlackInNature, she connected with other Black women who research sharks.
GRAHAM: Well, when we first came across each other on Twitter, it was this really magical experience. And I liken it to when you're dehydrated and, you know, you're in a desert or whatever, and you have that first sip of water, and you don't realize how thirsty you were until you had that first sip of water.
SOFIA: That sip of water turned into an oasis, a new group called Minorities in Shark Sciences, or MISS. So today on the show, Jasmin Graham talks about building a shark science community for women of color. I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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SOFIA: So Jasmin Graham and three other Black female shark researchers - Amani Webber-Schultz, Carlee Jackson and Jaida Elcock - connected on Twitter. And then on Juneteenth of last year, they launched their new organization, MISS. The goal - to encourage and support women of color in shark sciences.
GRAHAM: It started out being, you know, we just want to build community. We just want to let other women of color know that they're not alone and that they're not weird for wanting to do this and they're not less feminine for wanting to do this. They're not less Black or Indigenous or Latina for wanting to do this and that they can have their whole identities and be a scientist and study sharks, and those things are not mutually exclusive. And it kind of just grew from there of wanting to tear down the barriers that exist, that make us feel like we're less than and make us feel like we don't belong 'cause that's baloney. So then we started kind of...
SOFIA: That is some serious baloney.
SOFIA: That is some serious baloney. That is a way to - (laughter) I like the way you put that. Yeah, absolutely. But, I mean, I think that's really - there's a couple of things that I'm - like, immediately want to grab on to and talk to you about because, you know, you're saying, like - I don't know, saying, like, yeah, it's great to break the glass ceiling, but, like, it kind of sucks while you're doing it, you know? Like, I think that there's this idea that, like, through those moments, you're like, we're really doing this, and it's just, like, all inspirational. But it's a ton of work and, like, self-doubt and all that kind of stuff. So I'm wondering if you want to talk to me a little bit more about that.
GRAHAM: Yeah, for sure. It's one of those things where I want more than anything to just be a scientist...
GRAHAM: ...And do science and not have to carry extra weight or burden. But those are the cards that I've been dealt, and we all find a way to deal with that. And so my way of dealing with it is to do everything that I can to make sure that the burden is lighter for everyone that comes behind me. I wish that I could just, you know, go to conferences and just mill around like everybody else...
GRAHAM: ...And without a care in the world. But no, I'm constantly having to check people on microaggressions and like...
GRAHAM: ...Why did you say that? Would you say that to me if I was white? Would you say that to me if I was a man? Like, I'm actually naturally a very nonconfrontational, introverted person. I want to be left alone. But if I act like that and look the way that I do, people are going to run right over me. So I have to be super strong, and I have to take up space, and I have to be loud, and I have to do all of these things that are actually counter to my personality just to exist and be heard, which is super frustrating.
SOFIA: Yeah, absolutely. You just want to listen to, like, a mediocre talk, drink a mediocre beer and ask a roughly tangential question at the end of a science talk.
GRAHAM: Yeah, exactly.
SOFIA: You know? Just - OK, so let's talk a little bit more about MISS. So you originally set out to offer workshops to women of color in shark sciences. Can you tell me what those workshops were meant to do?
GRAHAM: Yeah. So the idea of the workshops - we should use this to instead of be a group of us that already, you know, are doing the science, we should take this opportunity to uplift women of color that haven't gotten into shark science yet and haven't had the experience yet, and they're just clamoring to try and get it. And so we decided to make it a teaching thing instead of a hangout thing. And we also wanted it to be free for the participants because the financial barriers that exist to getting into marine science are the biggest barriers for a lot of people.
SOFIA: Right, right.
GRAHAM: Marine science was not built for people of certain socioeconomic status. That's just plain and simple. They're like, you have to go get experience, but you got to pay for that experience.
GRAHAM: Oh, you can't pay for that experience? Well, when I see your CV, I'm going to judge you for not having experience. And that is not fair. And so we decided, OK, we'll do this three-day workshop. We will make sure that it is free from the moment the participants step out of their front door to the moment when they step back in their house. And we opened up applications, and our applications were as inclusive as we could make it. We did not ask for GPA. We did not ask for test scores. They didn't even need to be enrolled in a university. They just needed to say why they were interested in shark science, what the impact of this would be and why they were interested in being part of MISS.
SOFIA: MISS's very first workshop took place earlier this year in Key Biscayne, Fla., thanks to a lot of hard work and a bunch of donations, including use of a research vessel from the Field School - 10 women of color getting hands-on shark research experience over a weekend, including learning to longline, which is a fishing technique, and tagging a shark. Jasmin says her favorite moment came at the close of the final day.
GRAHAM: We were all sitting outside, the founders and I, 'cause we said if anyone has any last-minute questions they want to ask, while you're packing up, we'll be outside. Come talk to us. And all of them came out kind of one by one and asked us their last questions and then just expressed to us how much the weekend meant to them. And there were several moments where I felt like I was going to cry. And...
GRAHAM: And just looking at somebody in their eyes and them saying, you changed my life, and I don't think that I would be able to do this if I hadn't met you and if I hadn't had this experience and met all of these other women of color also trying to get into shark science - and seeing the impact because it was a thing that we talked about and, you know, you, like, in your mind know, oh, this is going to be great. It's going to be life-changing - da, da, da, da, da, willy-nilly.
But looking at somebody in their eyes and them saying, I didn't think I was smart enough, I didn't think I could do this, I thought that I was alone, and this weekend changed that for me - was exactly what we wanted to do. And that sincere moment with someone who you impacted is just - I wouldn't change that for anything in the world. That's the greatest feeling ever. I don't care if I win the Nobel Prize or publish a thousand papers. That moment that someone said, you did this for me, and I'm going to pay it forward, and one day I'm going to be just like you, and I'm going to reach behind me, and I'm going to help women of color, too - that is just chef's kiss. Perfect.
SOFIA: Chef's kiss. I like how you were like, this is exactly what I was expecting, and I was absolutely not ready for it.
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SOFIA: All right, Jasmin, this was a delight. We really appreciate your time and your work.
GRAHAM: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
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SOFIA: This episode was produced by Berly McCoy and Brit Hanson, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Berly McCoy. I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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