By BGN Guest Contributor Jahkotta Lewis

The crunch of black cinder beneath my boots reminds me that I’m walking in the volcanic footprint of a recently active volcano. Above me, large stands of lehua (metrosideros polymorpha), māmane (Sophora chrysophylla), and ōlapa (Cheirodendron trigynum) trees sway gently in the afternoon breeze. Rays of the sunshine beam through the native canopy and I pause for a minute to watch red and yellow feathered native birds flit above. It’s a great day to be on the field, and I smile as puffs of volcanic steam escape through the crevices of outcrops of newly weathered basalt.

I’m on my way to meet with entomologists from a prestigious Oahu museum. My job today is to assist them in an arthropod survey of a lava tube (volcanic cave) while making sure that the cave archaeology remains undisturbed during their activities. I’ve brought a map of the cave with me detailing historical era artifacts located at the next entrance of the cave along with a marked path that we will use to avoid them. I make a mental note to set out an emergency strobe light in case we need rescuing. Though I’m wilderness first aide certified and know my way around cave rescue, I still get nervous about field injuries, especially when working in complicated cave systems with multiple passages and crawl spaces. As crew chief for this project, I need to make sure these guys stay safe.

When I reach the meetup spot near an old turn-out that was once part of a road now reclaimed by lava; I take off my pack and enjoy a swig of water. About ten minutes later, my entomologists show up. It’s my first time working with these guys, but I know that the tall one has written the book on Hawaii Island troglobites. I am a bit star-struck.

The entomologists are middle aged, weathered from caving and dressed in white tee-shirts and jeans. Faded and well-loved backpacks cling to their backs and both sport wild looking goatees. I’m nervous, but I go over our plan for the day, making sure they have adequate water and safety supplies before I take out my navigation system and input the coordinates of our cave.

It takes about 30 minutes to navigate to the cave, and we’re scratched up from a thicket of Christmas berry (Schinus terebinthifolius) we had to fight our way through. The cave entrance consists of a massive pahoehoe sink (large hole in the ground surface allowing access to the passages of a cave) that’s about 8 meters deep. Natural rock piles created during the collapse of the sink grants access to a North running tube system.  After I radio in to rescue personnel back at the home office that we are about to enter into the subterranean environment, we fit ourselves with cave gear. Helmets, headlamps, sturdy gloves, elbow and knee pads are pulled on. Two sets of flashlights, extra batteries, glow sticks and whistles go into our bright orange vests just in case we somehow get separated, or our batteries die out. We also bring compasses, aspirators for insect collection, insect traps, Write-In-The-Rain notebooks, and a cave camera. I set up the emergency strobe light, photograph the entrance, and point out artifacts that are to be avoided as we enter into the darkness of the cave…

This particular experience marked the beginning of my career many years ago when I worked for a federal agency that focused on the preservation and management of cave resources. Since then, I’ve worked as an archaeologist and cave specialist for numerous firms and federal and state organizations. One of the remarkable things about my field is that I get to have experiences like this all of the time. Though archaeology is typically viewed as a soft science, we archaeologists depend heavily on the sciences to do our job. We use a bit of every scientific discipline in our pursuit to understand the past, present, and future. We utilize X-Ray Fluorescence Analysis to determine stone tool trade routes. We radiocarbon date short-lived plant species to date archaeological sites and use innovative mapping techniques to create 3-D computer images of ancient structures. We do it all.

Recently, as I lazily scrolled through Facebook, I followed a March for Science page and began reading its posts. I read the profiles of marine biologists, geneticists, physicists, etc., and enjoyed their commentary on the importance of the sciences. I ended up posting a photograph of myself on the page and left a quick blurb about how I wouldn’t be able to do my job without science. It wasn’t long before my phone was blowing up with notifications. I received quite a few friend requests because I seemed “cool” while other commenters let me know how refreshing it was to see a woman of color involved in the world of research. I felt like, and I could be wrong, that my being a black woman in my profession was being viewed as an anomaly of sorts. Sure, women and people of color (PoC) are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. However, this doesn’t mean that we don’t exist. 

There is an unsavory stereotype that PoC is afraid of the natural environment (unless we are in a common setting on the banks of Disney’s Jungle Cruise-angry face) and do not understand the sciences. I’ve heard and seen this perpetuated in the media from childhood up until adulthood, and it sucks because it’s so untrue.  We collect and study insects, explore the oceans as marine biologists, study climate change, and play with glass beakers with the best of them. We do science too!

This is why I’ve decided to do a four-part series on PoC in STEM-based careers. The individuals highlighted in this series are everyday people who value empirical data and eagerly await peer review. We will meet entomologists, consider perspectives on indigenous science, and delve into the careers of professionals who aren’t scientists per say but wouldn’t be able to do their jobs without it (kinda like me).  Join us for these perspectives in Black Girl Nerds’ series, “The Color of Science: The Everyday Narratives of People of Color in STEM.”

Part One: Conservation and the Black Girl Nerd 

Meet Dominque, Rachel, and Genelle as they study insects, bats, and work to become leaders in natural and environmental conservation!

The Fantastic Bug Lady!

Name: Dominique R. Zarders

Occupation: Entomological Research Assistant

Where are you from?

I am from Long Beach, CA and I have lived on Hawaii Island for the past ten years.

What are your hobbies?

I spend most of my free time fishing, going to the beach, and camping. I also enjoy kickboxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes.

Tell us something nerdy about yourself?

I love almost anything fantasy and Sci-Fi. I use quotes from movies or TV shows often. Also, I am completely fascinated with animals and animal behavior, including insects of course. The way animals interact with their environment is captivating. I love researching why certain animals do what they do. I also have a bad habit of petting and feeding other people’s animals, mostly horses and cows. I’m not sure if that’s “nerdy” or just weird.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood. Were you always drawn to the sciences?

Yes, as a child I was known for playing with bugs and my countless chemistry sets. Science and math were my favorite subjects throughout my childhood. When I was seven years old, my dad bought me a telescope for Christmas because I wanted to see the constellations I learned about in school. My Creepy Crawler Bug Maker and chemistry sets made my room look like a laboratory.

What is your education background? What degree(s) or training do you have or are working on?

I’ve earned a B.A. in Psychology, and I am currently an M.S. Graduate Student at the University of Hawaii at Hilo studying Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science. I am also in the B.S. Agriculture, Animal Science program. My training and professional background include arthropod diversity surveys, integrated pest management, insect biological control, and livestock production including artificial insemination. 

What inspired you to choose your field of study?

As an undergrad studying Psychology, I realized I didn’t want to work in an office. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to work outside. I was hired as a Research Assistant at USDA Agricultural Research Service rearing two species of fruit flies for trap efficacy trials for fruit crops. This was my first job in entomological research, and it opened so many doors. Once I found the path to research in natural sciences, I pursued my interest in Animal Science and Entomology. I now study insect biological control and physiological mechanisms of host-specificity.

Who do you look up to in your field?

Honestly, my husband. He works in entomological research focusing on integrated pest management and invasive species management in Hawaii. He inspires me to be the best at what I do. I also think he sets the standard pretty high.

Please describe a typical work day in your field.

A typical day on the job could include hiking to collect plants and insects, data entry and other lab work, plant propagation in a greenhouse, pest management, setting up an experiment, or a combination of the task previously mentioned. A dull day is rare in my field, and there is always something to do.

What are some of the challenges as a person of color do you run into in your field (If any)?

Luckily, I haven’t run into problems due to the color of my skin. The only problems I have encountered are common work problems (e.g. someone wants help but doesn’t help others or people who are rude and annoying). My experience has led me to believe that the only thing that matters is what you know. If you are the best in your field, the color of your skin doesn’t matter.

What is the coolest aspect of your job?

The coolest aspect of my job is traveling and hiking to remote areas while doing something I enjoy. I’m always learning something new and a lot of my hours are spent outside. Another cool aspect is the outreach events we do with local elementary schools. Sometimes our lab will have an exhibit at Science Day events or take the kids around the National Park to look at native and introduced arthropods.

What advice would you like to give to young people of color with interest in the sciences?

Volunteer when you can, work hard, and… “Do or do not. There is no try.”  -Yoda

Move Over Batman! Batwoman is Here!

Name: Rachel Moseley

Occupation: Wildlife Biologist; studies bats.

Education: Bachelors in Animal Behavior and Spanish.

Where are you from? I was born in Columbia, Maryland but moved to Hilo, Hawaii 9 years ago.

What are your hobbies?

Dancing, particularly tango and salsa, as well as playing music (I used to be the drummer in a band). I also just started learning about bee keeping which I find fascinating.

Tell us something nerdy about yourself?

I started labeling my bat detectors, microphones, and cables with actual names- some of which include characters from the Harry Potter universe… Harry Potter-verse?

Tell us a little bit about your childhood. Were you always drawn to the sciences?

Definitely. Growing up I thought I would be a veterinarian or a dancer, or both! In 5th grade, I learned about Dr. Jane Goodall and her behavioral studies with primates, at which point I decided I wanted to study animals in the wild. Later I volunteered to do animal husbandry at my local Nature Center, and I got hands on experience with lots of animals- everything from snakes to salamanders to hawks. Also, I always enjoyed biology more than other subjects in school, but I’d say I was more drawn to animals in general.

What inspired you to choose your field of study?

I always wanted to work in the area of conservation and to study endangered animals. One of my professors at Bucknell, Dr. Deeann Reeder first introduced me to bats and in my Junior year, I went to Costa Rica to study them with the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) program. My time in Costa Rica taught me a lot about biodiversity, plant/animal interactions, and conservation. Bats seemed to be central to all of those things, and I learned how important many species are to the ecosystem as pollinators. After moving to Hawaii, I volunteered at Volcanoes National Park on an acoustics monitoring project aimed at better understanding movement patterns of the Hawaiian hoary bat. I was inspired by the opportunity to contribute to the knowledge base of these cryptic and somewhat unusual bats. Currently, I am studying the seasonal movement patterns and estimating occupancy of bats in different habitat types.

Please describe a typical work day in your field.

I start work at 6 AM, usually bundled in several layers (yes, it can be frigid and windy at high elevation even in Hawaii), and often take replacement batteries and data cards, radio, and my lunch. I spend a lot of time driving on rough roads to service the Anabat detectors I have in the field. I retrieve the indicators, download the data from the previous nights and move them to deploy them in new locations. I also maintain and download climate data from different weather stations. Back at the office, I determine which sites had bat activity. I take all of this information and look for seasonal patterns of bat presence throughout the year using statistical models.

What is the coolest aspect of your job?

I work between two volcanoes, in an entirely different climatic zone than the one I live in at sea level, and I get to explore a part of the Big Island that not many people get to see. Also occasionally I get to fly in a helicopter to access remote sites.

What advice would you like to give to young people of color with interest in the sciences?

If you are interested in science, ask if you can volunteer at your local science centers, museums, and even colleges as early as you can. There are many people who need assistance, and it’s a good way to learn what specifically interests you.

The Natural Resource and Environmental Management Master’s Student 

Name: Genelle Watkins

Occupation: Teaching Assistant and M.S. student.

Where are you from?

Southern California

What are your hobbies?

Hiking, swimming, camping, and the occasional conversation about outer space and our multidimensional universe.

Tell us something nerdy about yourself?

Honestly, I’ve become so immersed in my field; I can’t understand what’s nerdy and what isn’t.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood. Were you always drawn to the sciences?

Nope! I always loved to be outside though, so naturally, I think that somehow science became the most relevant to my time spent out in the field. I had horses and a pig growing up too, so I always loved getting my hands dirty. Luckily, they give degrees for that now!

What is your education background? What degree(s) or training do you have or are working on?

My Bachelor’s is in Integrative Biology with a concentration in Environmental Science.

I’m currently working on my Master’s in Natural Resources & Environmental Management at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.

What inspired you to choose your field of study?

A love for all things outdoors and the people that can help make a positive difference for the sake of our planet.

Who do you look up to in your field?

All of the women and men who are kicking gender roles and expectations in the face and are doing awesome science!

Please describe a typical work day in your field.

That usually can widely vary, but here’s the abridged version:

Wake up around 6 am gym, work, work, work, work, work *Rihanna voice*, beach (on a good day), eat, repeat.

What are some of the challenges as a person of color do you run into in your field (If any)?

You’re usually the only black person in a class/room/conference, etc. There is the expectation that you have to speak on behalf of all black people.

What is the coolest aspect of your job?

Meeting people who care about the same things you do, and getting to talk to them about it!

How do you feel about how this Administration is dealing with environmental issues?

It’s like waking up every day and seeing a massive storm on the horizon, edging closer and closer each day. So the best thing you can do is work a little each day to reinforce your fort and prepare for the worst. However, so that doesn’t come off too dismal, you look around and see that the people are helping you reinforce all with you in love and support, and that feels pretty awesome.

What advice would you like to give to young people of color with interest in the sciences?

There will be some days where you feel like you can’t get out of bed because of the pressure to succeed. But I promise you, if you get up, show up, and work your ass off…you’ll surprise yourself.

Next Time on The Color of Science…

Join us as we meet a lawyer who has dedicated himself to empowering indigenous scientific perspectives and a Landscape Architect that believes in creating green landscapes as a means of reducing our fossil fuel footprint.

If you are a person of color that works in a STEM field and would like to participate in this series, please contact Jahkotta Lewis via her Twitter account @jahkotta.

Jahkotta Lewis is a professional archaeologist, an amateur astronomer, and an aspiring writer. When she is not documenting Pacific Island archaeology, she spends her days hiking through native forests, spelunking within the depths of an active volcano, and watching/reading all things fantasy and science fiction. Follow her on Twitter @jahkotta

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  • E. Angel

    Jahkotta,

    You go girls! Get your science on!

  • Nicole D. R

    This was a great reinforcement on the fact that we are everywhere! We have various interests and we are not monoliths! I anticipate the next series!!