Black Women Shark Scientists Create Network to Encourage People of Color
When Jasmin Graham describes her research on smalltooth sawfish, a critically endangered ray with a unique "saw" at the front of its face, she explains how "nothing else looks like this in the ocean; those species evolved to do something no other shark or ray can do." It resonates, and people understand why diversity matters in sharks, she said. She expanded on this same concept to emphasize how diversity also matters in finding solutions to the challenges that threaten elasmobranchs and in those scientists doing that work.
As a result, Graham, a young, black female shark scientist, found herself chatting on Twitter via the #BlackInNature hashtag with Amani Webber-Schultz, Carlee Jackson and Jaida Elcock, three other young, black female shark scientists from around the country.
They were excited to find each other and soon created a space for other women of color in shark science — MISS — to connect and not feel as alone.
"MISS means Minorities in Shark Science, and it really started because we didn't see representation in the sciences, and that matters a lot when you're young," said Jackson.
"We need to start acting to address these disparities if we don't want to exclude yet another generation of talented scientists," said Rahma Elmahdi, an inclusion expert, reported BBC.
Graham told EcoWatch how she "didn't know marine science was a thing" growing up. Her family fished and enjoyed the beach but never ventured below the water's surface for fear of sharks and the inability to swim. When the scientists first showed interest in marine biology, her parents were supportive but could not provide her access to an actual marine scientist.
Graham had to figure it out on her own until a collegiate advisor went out of his way to mentor her in shark science and encourage graduate study.
"One of the reasons we started MISS is we recognized that we all are very lucky we had someone who stepped in and guided us," she said, "but what happens to the people who don't have someone step in? Do they just fail? That isn't fair."
MISS wants to become that "someone who steps in and helps," Graham explained. Beyond that, the founders, who also serve as the executive board, envision the organization becoming a community of minority scientists who can rely on each other and provide the type of support that none of them experienced until they found each other a month ago.
Jasmin Graham downloads data from an acoustic receiver. Jasmin Graham
"We strive to be seen and take up space in a discipline which has been largely inaccessible for women like us," the board stated. "We strive to be positive role models for the next generation."
Each of the scientists emphasized the importance of innovation for science and of diversity for innovation.
"We believe diversity in the field creates more diversity in the knowledge and solutions," said Jackson.
Life experiences and world views have a huge impact on how people think about and address global problems, Graham added. More perspectives leads to more creative ideas and solutions. Homogeneity in problem solvers leads to homogeneity in thought patterns and, often, to dead ends.
Fisheries science is grappling with this challenge, she said, often "running in circles" until they ask local indigenous communities to share their knowledge.
"If you don't have everyone at the table, you don't have all the information," Graham said, "And science is all about data."
Representation in policy decisions and research is paramount to creating the most inclusive, effective and long-lasting solutions, the board postured.
MISS is quickly gaining traction, already fundraising $20,000 of their $25,000 initial goal. The money will fund travel stipends and professional development workshops to 18 new minority women shark scientists next March and April.
Many people of color struggle with financial barriers to gain access and develop skills that would make them successful marine biologists, Elcock said, because most internships are unpaid or require payment for participation. The founders intend for the hands-on workshops, which will take place on the Field School research vessel where Webber-Schulz is a current fellow, to provide participants with critical field experience and to kick start their networks of minority shark scientists.
They also will focus on outreach to the younger generation, to be the role models they didn't see for young, budding scientists of color.
"We want to make it clear that women of color belong in shark science, even if you don't see them yet," said Webber-Schulz. "We do exist and we are here to stay."
Elcock summarized, "If we don't have diversity, science loses. Everyone loses."
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Teri Schultz
Europe is in a panic over the second wave of COVID-19, with infection rates sky-rocketing and GDP plummeting. Belgium has just announced it will no longer test asymptomatic people, even if they've been in contact with someone who has the disease, because the backlog in processing is overwhelming. Other European countries are also struggling to keep up testing and tracing.
Meanwhile in a small cabin in Helsinki airport, for his preferred payment of a morsel of cat food, rescue dog Kossi needs just a few seconds to tell whether someone has coronavirus.
<div id="bfda0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c60b1a0dedbedbe5e0ce44284aff852f"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1308390775328251906" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Covid-19 dogs started their work today at the Helsinki Airport at arrival hall 2B. Dogs have been trained to detect… https://t.co/nw4mrw6eJM</div> — Helsinki Airport (@Helsinki Airport)<a href="https://twitter.com/HelsinkiAirport/statuses/1308390775328251906">1600779644.0</a></blockquote></div><p>If it were left to Kossi and his pals, crowds of potential virus carriers could be cleared in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost with none of the physical discomfort that accompanies the current nasal swab test based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method.</p>
No Human Nose Needed<p>A dog can sniff a cloth wiped on a wrist or neck and immediately identify if it comes from someone who has contracted the virus as much as five days before any symptoms appear which would lead a person to go into isolation. "A dog could easily save so so, so many lives," University of Helsinki veterinary researcher Anna Hielm-Bjorkman told DW, who says their testing has shown an accuracy level of nearly 100%.</p><p>It was originally her idea to see whether Kossi, a talented disease-detection dog, could redirect his skills in sniffing out mold, bedbugs and cancer to detecting the new virus just as it started to spread in Europe. "It took him seven minutes to figure out 'okay, this is what you want me to look out for," Hielm-Bjorkman said. "So that totally blew our minds."</p><p>Susanna Paavilainen, the executive director of the Wise Nose scent-detection foundation and the woman who saved Kossi from euthanasia in a Spanish shelter eight years ago, immediately started retraining her dogs to find the coronavirus.</p><p>Miina, who used to track a young girl's blood sugar levels by scent, quickly came on board, along with two others already working in disease detection. In all, they hope to train 15 dogs in the first phase.</p><p>Hielm-Bjorkman said once they discovered the new capabilities, while the normal academic procedure would be to test, publish and get peer-reviewed, their first instinct was to get the dogs into service. "[Researchers] who are actually publishing," she noted wryly, "are not at the airports."</p>
Wags, Not Wages<p>But for that, they needed permission and ideally, some funding. Vantaa Deputy Mayor Timo Aronkyto, who is also responsible for airport security, saw the benefit straight away. "It took me two minutes," he told DW.</p><p>However, his funding options were limited to about $390,000 total for the four-month pilot project aiming to prove that results from the dog tests are at least as accurate as the PCR test. Anyone who tests positive at the voluntary canine site is requested to go to the medical unit for confirmation.</p><p>The interest of Aronkyto, a trained physician, is rooted in both health and wealth. "Our testing at the airport costs more than 1 million [euros] (USD $1.2 million) a month at the moment," he said, explaining he expects that to go up to €3 million (USD. $3.5 million) per month in winter. "These dogs would be much cheaper," he pointed out.</p><p>He's optimistic support will grow as data from the current pilot project accumulates, explaining there is already work underway to change Finnish legislation so eventually sniffer dogs would have the same "authority" as customs dogs.</p><p>Aronkyto anticipates one animal performing both functions in the near future. He plans to continue this level of funding from his city budget into next year but that doesn't train new dogs nor expand the capacity beyond the four that split shifts currently at the airport, even as infection rates rise.</p>
Helsinki Hesitates<p>Notably, however, the Finnish government has not signaled it would like to pick up the program itself, despite a huge surge in publicity and, as Hielm-Bjorkman and Paavilainen emphasize, interest from other countries. Travelers have been eager to participate, waiting in line more than an hour at times.</p><p>Finnish ambassador in Ramallah, Palestine, Paivi Peltokoski, praised the experience after a recent trip but, apparently, her enthusiasm is not overly contagious.</p>
<div id="d9823" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="61d382f115fe66a44eb793d9ebee3d94"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318564228450615299" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">I was tested negative by two #coronadogs upon arrival at the #Helsinki airport in #Finland. Later a medical test ve… https://t.co/cGlWQn8DJb</div> — Päivi Peltokoski (@Päivi Peltokoski)<a href="https://twitter.com/PaiviPeltokoski/statuses/1318564228450615299">1603205184.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"If the government would see this already as something that they would believe in," Hielm-Bjorkman said, she could envision training hundreds of dogs, stationing sniffers at concert halls or sports matches or elderly care homes. She adds there's a need for a "paradigm shift" for both medical professionals and the public.</p><p>Usually it's doctors telling patients if they're sick, she explained, and "here it's a dog handler."</p>
Little Political Will on German Project<p>This situation is not limited to Finland. In Germany researchers also <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/german-sniffer-dogs-show-promise-at-detecting-coronavirus/a-54300863" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">announced promising results</a> with canines <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-german-military-training-sniffer-dogs/a-54062180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">detecting COVID-19</a>, but no dogs have been used anywhere so far. And then, says Professor Holger Volk of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, there has been insufficient political will or funding to move the project forward, something he called "very troubling" especially with a resurgent infection rate.</p><p>"When we started this whole project, we we did it because we wanted to help to stop the pandemic," Volk told DW. "It's really has been a very frustrating ride. I have had a lot of naysayers in the whole process. If I wasn't a very determined person, having done a lot of research, I would have probably stopped it."</p><p>He agrees with Hielm-Bjorkman's assessment that "it's just not in the perception of doctors that dogs are able to do this precise work." But he also echoes her faith in the vast potential of their discovery. "If you had a dog who could sniff every day quickly your cohort of workers, for example," he said, "think about the impact. You could continue having a workplace."</p><p>Speaking of workplaces, Susanna Paavilainen is starting to think if Finland doesn't want to unleash the dogs' potential at home, she and Kossi might accept one of the many requests from all over the world to provide training. "We can move because Kossi likes warm weather," she says, petting her star sniffer.</p>
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