Jess is joined by Amani Webber-Schultz and Jaida Elcock, shark scientists and co-founders of the nonprofit organization Minorities In Shark Sciences. The conversation ranges from hammerhead shark anatomy to the UN High Seas Treaty, and the importance of diversity for innovation in science.
“For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.”
If you’ve only heard of one famous oceanographer, that person is probably Jacques Cousteau, originator of that quote. For decades, the faces of ocean research were, 99 times out of 100, white men. On occasion, female masters of the deep arose, like the legendary Sylvia Earle. Despite the fact that oceans touch 151 of the world’s 195 current nations, popular media persists in presenting the sea as the dominion mainly of men, and still mainly as that of white men.
One study found that there are more white men named “Mike” who appear as shark experts on Discovery Channel’s famous Shark Week programming than there are expert women and people of color. Want an anecdote to wash down that data?
In 2017, I appeared in a show for Shark Week titled “Sharks and Volcanoes.” The host was a shark biologist who, coincidentally, was a white man named Mike. We had a great time looking at the relationship between sharks and volcanoes, but when the program was ready to air we were informed the title was now the much more ominous “Devil Sharks.” I was not amused. I’m your host Jess Phoenix, and This…is Science!
What I experienced during my foray into the world of shark research (or the televised version of it) did nothing to represent the true state of ocean research, where nearly half of scientists are women and active research is done worldwide by people of all races and ethnicities.
Now that we’ve dipped our toes into the shallow end of the state of shark science and representation, let’s dive into the deep with two of the founders of an organization dedicated to breaking down the doors to the science of sharks. All aboard!
Jess: Today I am joined by two of the founders of one of the most intriguing, and, in my opinion, excellent nonprofits that I've heard of in the last few years. The group is called Minorities in Shark Sciences, which, of course, makes a really cool acronym, MISS. And so, today, we've got Amani Webber-Schultz, who is the CFO for the org, and Jaida Elcock, who's the director of PR. So, yay, public relations. And these two fantastic people are Ph.D. students, and they love sharks, which is why I wanted to talk to them. So, that's my tiny intro. It doesn't at all capture who you are. So, would you like to introduce yourselves for our listeners?
Jaida: Sure. All right. I'll go first. Hello, everyone. My name is Jaida Elcock. Yes, I am a Ph.D. student at the MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program for biological oceanography, which is a mouthful, so I just say the MIT WHOI JP for BO, which is still a really big mouthful, but it's fine.
Jess: Alphabet soup.
Jaida: Exactly. I'm researching ecology, movement ecology of predators, specifically basking sharks is gonna be one of the things that I'm focused on for my dissertation. I've kind of been all over the place in the world of science, jumping back and forth between the East and West Coast, but I grew up in the middle of the desert. So, how I got to the ocean, we're not really sure, but here we are.
Jess: I'm gonna ask you about that in a little bit, because, yeah, that's a kind of a convoluted path, but okay. So, take it away, Amani.
Amani: Hello, everyone. My name is Amani. I'm also a Ph.D. student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Not so much of a mouthful, but I usually just say NJIT. I study shark functional morphology and swimming kinematics, which is indeed a large mouthful. But basically, I'm just really curious about why they look the way that they do and how that assists them in their environments and in swimming. I also have been all over the place in the science field. I do a lot of science communication as well. And contrary to Jaida, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, right next to the Pacific Ocean. So I guess we can see a slightly clearer line to here now with that.
Jess: So, my knowledge of your organization, MISS, is basically, it coalesced after the Black in Nature and Black Birders week became a really prominent trend on social media. And it was essentially a response, or, like, an evolution of what came out of the George Floyd protests and the racial reckoning that the country was going through, country and world, in some cases. And so, obviously, it speaks to representation, but I wanna hear it from you two. Like, how did the push to create MISS happen, and has your mission shifted at all in the almost three years since then?
Jaida: That's a really good question. I would say that I don't think our mission has really shifted that much. We've just kind of extended it, and just, like, added more on to it, of not just, you know, providing a space for all of these scientists, but also trying to get them the recognition that they deserve, and being a resource for all of these, like, media companies. Like, we're partnered with NatGeo to come and find diverse scientists to feature in their shows, so that people can actually see, like, this is more of what science looks like. It's not just the same five white guys going out tagging sharks every time. So, I think that our mission has pretty much largely stayed the same. We've just been able to provide more opportunities and more, I guess, reach for our members to be able to get their names out there and get their science out there, which is really exciting.
And in terms of, like, how it all was founded, I think that we all kind of realized, like, we were kind of sick of being the only person that looked like us in a room filled with our colleagues, when you just look around, and you're like, "I feel isolated," even though you're surrounded by people. And that is such a crappy feeling. It's not fun. And so, I think that we all kind of just came together and we're like, hey, if we all were in a room together, it would feel a lot less isolated, wouldn't it? Because we all, you know, have some shared experiences. And so, out of that came MISS, and they were, like, I think it was Jasmine, was like, "LOL, we should start a club." And then she was like, "No, for real. We need to do this." And we got together on Twitter, started a group chat. None of us had ever met in person. And then we had our first Zoom call, and two weeks later, we launched a nonprofit organization, with no experience on how to get it started, but that's what we did.
Jess: So, basically, you built the car as you were driving down the road.
Jaida: A hundred percent yes. We're still building the car, if we're being honest.
Amani: Oh, yeah. Our car's a little rusty. We're trying to get some bodywork done.
Jess: Well, it's having it right next to the ocean all the time. It just oxidizes. What can you do?
Jaida: Yeah. [inaudible 00:07:57]
Amani: Yeah, exactly.
Jess: So, has it been a largely positive experience, or has there been a lot of the more serious aspects that people of color and people from traditionally underrepresented communities in the sciences, you know, is there more discussion of that at all, or is it basically a, like, we're doing this together, and we're gonna make it great? Like, is...or is it a mix?
Amani: It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience just to know that we are making a difference for people, so that they don't have to feel the way that us four felt when we decided that shark science was the thing that we wanted to do. And so, I've gotten a lot of joy in just being able to be a part of an organization that is able to create these opportunities for our members, and see all of their, like, smiling faces, and see some of them go to grad school after doing a fellowship with MISS, and things like that. So, overwhelmingly positive, and I think also positive in the fact that it seems like since we founded MISS, those talks that you specifically talked about are happening a lot more, which I think is also a very positive thing, because they needed to happen, and I think that MISS kind of created a large, looming presence that was, like, "this must happen." And so a lot of people kind of fell under that umbrella, and they were like, "Okay, this one organization is doing this. I think it's doable for all of us."
Jess: That's pretty great.
Jaida: Yeah. I think I would agree. I would agree. I kind of had the same sort of experience of it has been very largely positive. And, of course, we have, like, the negative comments of, like, "Why are you making it about race?" And I'm like, "Hmm. Joke's on you. You've kind of made everything about race. That's why we're doing this. Like, hello?" And so we've, of course, had, you know, some negative commentary. And it's a fact of life that that's gonna happen no matter what it is that you're doing, so we just kind of... You know, if we get a valid criticism, we obviously take that to heart, and we, like, consider what we can do about it. But if it's just someone mad because they're gonna be mad, then we kind of just push it off to the side and say, "We don't have time for you. We have a lot of other important things to focus on," and that is providing opportunities and experiences for our members, and creating a community that we think was and still is very needed and important.
Jess: Excellent. And, I mean, it's... Your conviction and your caring for this really shines through. So, I think that's what people look for in, if they think about a nonprofit they wanna support, or a group they wanna be part of, they really wanna see not just themselves in the group, but they wanna see, like, a good version of themselves. And so, I think that, as far as it comes to representation, from my admittedly not-very-important position, it looks to me like you all are killing it. So, I think it's so great, and it's not something I would have heard about when I was in grad school in, between, like, '07 and 2010. So, we're talking about a huge cultural shift that's happened in less than a generation. And it's because of people like you. So, that's pretty cool.
And, all right. So, I do wanna talk about sharks now. Sorry, not sorry. Because you all like sharks, and sharks are just the most badass things. Like, I mean, I obviously study volcanoes, so I'm no stranger to people going, "Oh, my god. It's so dangerous. How do you do it?" You know, and I'm like, "Yeah, but there are people who do sharks. There are people who do lions." So, like, sharks and lions are my tie for the coolest animals on the planet. And...
Amani: It’s a good tie. Good tie.
Jess: So, I have to get the terrible pun in there, because I'm, like, pretty well-known for my terrible puns, so I would like to dive into sharks.
Jess: If you have other terrible puns, please feel free to use them. And so, I wanna know... So, Jaida, like, you mentioned how you grew up in the middle of the desert. So, why sharks? How sharks? What?
Jaida: I lived in landlocked states my entire life growing up. I went to undergrad on a mountain surrounded by desert. I was nowhere near the ocean until the age of, like, 22, which was when I started grad school. And I think that it all just kind of stemmed from curiosity, that snowballed until it got out of control, and science no longer had answers for me, so I had to find the answers myself. My brothers and I always, like, when we were little, we used to go outside and just explore whatever environment we were in, looking for spiders and scorpions and snakes and lizards, and whatever else. And I think that the curiosity of the ocean, like, an ecosystem that I didn't have the opportunity to explore, just kind of pulled me in. And I had all these complex questions, and I was like, "Okay, I'll watch a bunch of, like, documentaries, and, like, nature shows and stuff," and, like, Animal Planet, and NatGeo. And I got a kick out of them. Those were, like, my favorite channels growing up.
And I learned more and I became more and more curious, and I got more and more complex questions until I was like, "I don't think science has answers for that, so if I want an answer, I have to just go do the research and figure it out, and then I can help provide those answers to people who are also like, 'What is happening with these animals?'" So I guess it was kind of the opposite of curiosity killed the cat. It was curiosity gave Jaida a career, so...
Jess: Well, so, I know this is a relatively new podcast, because when we're recording this, people, we hadn't even released the first episode yet. So, you don't know, but the tagline for the podcast is "Curiosity is the Cure." So, you basically just tied it in, like, boom, 100%, you win something. I don't have a prize, but I should get prizes, and when I do, I will send you one. I'm not sure what it'll be. It may be, like, UCS swag or something. But, you know, whatever. I'll send you something. Because that was perfect. And I firmly believe in that curiosity. That curiosity that you have when you're a kid is the kind of thing that inspires and provokes, and just really ignites any kind of change we make in the world, I think, and that, you guys are making change. I mean, this is great. And so I then have to ask Amani, because you said shark morphology... Now, my expertise in vulcanology is lava flow morphology. So, like, the different forms and shapes that lava takes. And you're doing the same thing, but for sharks. And it's funny because I, you know, admittedly, as a geoscientist, like, I didn't think about animals having morphology, but they totally do. So, I wanna know what got you into shark morphology. And then also if you could answer for me this question I've had my entire life, my burning question, is, why are hammerhead sharks a thing? And why are they so dopey, and why do I love them so much? Because they are my absolute favorite. But why are hammerhead sharks?
Amani: Yeah. So, with the hammerheads, it's a couple of, like, different things. The first is that, along that hammer part, it's covered in ampullae of Lorenzini, which is basically just an electroreception organ that allows them to sense electricity. So, when we, as people, move, our muscles create little bits of electricity. And those organs allow them to sense that. And one of the things that hammerheads love is rays. And rays love to hang out in the sand, where you cannot see them. So, one of the theories is that they have this head which allows them to eat the thing that they really like eating because they can swim over the bottom, and kind of use a little head as, like, a satellite dish that's pinging around into the sand until it picks up that whole electroreception, or electricity coming from the ray. And then it helps them see where the ray is without actually seeing the ray in the sand, which is really fun.
Jess: So that, you're telling me that basically sharks evolved, like, their own version of a metal detector for uncovering stuff that's hidden in the sand.
Amani: Yes. Yes, yes.
Jess: Oh my god. That's so cool.
Amani: Yes. And they use it in general, right? So, if you have a great white, for example, that doesn't typically swim along sandy habitats, they're still using that electroreception to sense different things going on in the water. So, all sharks have that, the ampullae of Lorenzini, and then they all just kind of use it differently. But that's one of the more common theories I've heard about hammerheads with having that cephalofoil, weird-looking toolbox on their face.
Jess: Okay. So, then, back to the why morphology for you. I can take you on digressions, like, we can be totally swimming in a different ocean here. See, another bad pun.
Amani: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, thanks for bringing me back, because I'm also a wander-off-to-all-the-80-different-paths-that-you-can-go kind of person. Basically, I mean, the short answer to why morphology is, I have always really struggled in school, mostly because I have a really hard time with things like exams and being able to kind of put out conceptual thoughts onto pieces of paper. And morphology became a thing that I was really interested in because my junior year of college, I met my now Ph.D. advisor, and I loved how hands-on it was, and how I could actually see the thing that I was trying to figure out in my head as an image, as opposed to something like math numbers, where I have a really hard time visualizing numbers and what they're doing, until, like, right now, as we're talking, I have something 3D printing, that I need for research that I'm gonna go do next week. And I built the whole thing in my head, and then went online, and built it into a space to 3D print it. And so I really love the being able to, like, visually look at something, or visually create something that I have sitting in my brain. And morphology, just let me be, like, "why shapes?" Like, why are you shaped like that? What is this shape? Why do you look like that? And it just ended up being the thing that I was the most curious about, and also felt the most, I think, attached it felt like a route that wasn't gonna make me feel stupid, for lack of a better word.
Jess: So, I know a lot of people get scared off from science because they think, "Oh, I'm not a math nerd, therefore I can't do science." And I think what you're saying, basically, is that you like the tangible, because it has meaning. I mean, the things have the shapes they do for reasons. It's not random. It's not chance. And, to me, that makes me think you should come out and look at rocks with me sometime. Amani, you mentioned great whites. And there's been a lot of news about great whites recently, especially because they seem to be making a comeback off the coast of California, where I am. So, they've been in the news. But I was reading something in "Nature," and it basically said that 59% of reef-associated sharks and rays are under extinction threats. But, like, on the flip side, the UN just agreed to the high seas treaty.
So, that would put, like, 30% of the world's oceans under protection. I'm very realistic. I know the score with climate change. I've done climate research. Like, I get it. So, we have the changing climate. We have growing populations, and we have things that we want in our lives, because it's the 21st century, and people don't wanna give up their smartphones, etc., or their merchandise that needs to be shipped across an ocean. So, is the high seas treaty... Is it something, or steps like that, is that gonna be enough to protect the sharks? And in your opinions, like, what can we do to get our acts together? Because I don't wanna see sharks disappear. I don't want us to make them go extinct in our lifetimes or any lifetimes, because they're such remarkable examples of evolution, and biology, and how specialized, and how successful it can be if humans don't mess it up.
Jaida: Right. I think that that is a difficult question, obviously, which is why it's, I feel like, taken so long for us to make any headway when it comes to legislation on these topics. But I think one thing to also consider is that, like, this, the high seas treaty is, like, a great step forward, obviously. Like, no one's gonna look at that and be like, "Oh, that's..." Well, some people might, but people who care about the ocean are gonna look at that and be like, "Oh, that's terrible, and," like, "that's not gonna do anything whatsoever." But I think that it's also important to recognize that a lot of shark species are migratory. And so, protecting certain parts of the ocean is wonderful, but... And a lot of different countries have, you know, like, their marine protected areas and things like that, where, like, fishing is restricted and things like that.
But if you have a migratory shark that's crossing all of these, like, country and continental boundaries, you're gonna have to have a lot more collaboration between these countries if you're actually gonna do anything that's gonna reasonably help their populations. Otherwise, I mean, they might get out of one country, move into the waters of another country, and get caught there and die. So, I guess all of this is to say, it's nice to see these steps forward, and it is very exciting, but there are also a lot of other steps and a lot of other things to consider.
Jess: Sounds fair. And Amani, any thoughts?
Amani: Yeah. I mean, I think I read that it took them nearly two decades to actually come to this agreement. So I would say it's a big feat in and of itself, and I also think that it really shows that we all understand that what happens in the ocean, that is, like, a global commons, or what we generally share, that isn't just your own personal country's waters, has large effects on every country, and not just one or the other. And so I think in general, like, treaties like this, where people are coming together and really trying to figure out, with the idea that things would benefit their nation, what also benefits everybody else in the global world, is really important and really critical, especially with how we have been damaging the ocean over the last, especially, I would say, like, 50 years.
Jaida: I feel like I have a lot of personal experience with this, obviously, growing up in landlocked places. And, for me, I think a big thing was interacting with people at aquariums, and, like, recognizing that a lot of the people, whether adults or children or teenagers, or whatever, that might go to an aquarium, like, in the middle of Phoenix, like, maybe they've never seen the ocean before. Or maybe they have, but, like, only once. And I know that there's also a lot of, you know, back-and-forth about animals in captivity, but I think it's important to consider that without animals in captivity, let's be clear, well-kept in captivity, then we don't have the opportunity to educate people about the animals that are existing there. And you can't expect people to make decisions about, like, laws and policies and legislation if they don't know or care about an animal. So, I think that a big thing for me growing up was going to an aquarium and being like, "Oh my gosh, this is the coolest thing ever. I'm now fixated on this and it's gonna be my career." That might happen for another little kid that lives in the desert.
Jess: And it kind of makes me wonder, like, where we go from here. So, obviously, I don't have my finger on the pulse of the shark research community like you two do. But I'm wondering what you both see as the future of shark research, from a scientific standpoint, but also from, like, a diversity and equity standpoint, because I know, for a long time, science has had this model of having people from largely white, largely Western-influenced cultures parachuting in to different locales around the world and trying to tell the people who were already there how to do their research, or not letting them do the research. So, basically, where is shark science heading, scientifically, and otherwise?
Jaida: Not just shark science, but all science needs native voices in order to succeed. They have an incredible knowledge and connection with the Earth that a lot of us don't have, or, again, it's just the way that, you know, their culture and the way that they were brought up, this is a way that they think that a lot of us don't think. And I think that their voices...I know that their voices are essential to actually fully understanding the Earth and the processes that happen and the animals that we share the planet with and everything. So, I just wanted to emphasize the importance of getting indigenous voices into science as well.
Jess: Yeah. Right. I mean, there's so much inherited knowledge in different cultures. And it's foolish for science to ignore that, because we can test the inherited knowledge. I do think having a more holistic view of the world is only going to help science going forward. And so, I really wanted to see, for people who don't have a shark researcher in their orbit, and maybe they wanna get involved in studying, and I'm gonna drop the fun word elasmobranchs, and you can explain elasmobranchs if you want, but if somebody, if you don't know someone who's studying elasmobranchs, well, now, everyone listening knows you two. But if they don't have somebody in their backyard who's doing this, or maybe they live in, you know, the middle of the country, and they wanna get involved in conservation or research, like, what sort of things can they do to further their curiosity with sharks?
Amani: Be very curious, and read about the things that you are curious about. I think, especially with reading, and especially if you don't have the access to a person who has all of the knowledge that you want, making sure that you're reading about the things that you're curious about, but also that you're getting all of that stuff from different sources, so that you have at least a holistic background of what's going on and then you can develop your own opinions, is really important, and also a really great way to just maintain that curiosity, and figure out the areas that maybe you want to research. Or maybe this part of conservation is really interesting to you, and after all this reading, and watching shows, and YouTube and podcasts, you realize that there's this, like, big gap, and that's the gap that you wanna fill. Like, that's how you kind of find the areas that you can fit into. And that's basically what most people do with their Ph.D.s. They're like, "There's a gap here. I can fill this gap with the research that I wanna do." And that's what scientists are doing all the time. And so, just because you don't have a job that says "scientist" does not mean that you can't be one yourself.
Jaida: So, you can go the research route, you can go the science communication route, you can do both, or you can just, you know, listen and find the information when it's interesting to you. You don't have to be, like, super into science to be, like, allowed to enjoy science at the same time.
Amani: I think the only thing I want to add is that I think an important distinction that I very firmly believe is that you don't have to do research to be a scientist. And I think a lot of people, especially how we're raised in the U.S. specifically, like, you are raised with this expectation that scientists are doing research all the time, and that's what a scientist is like. Miss Frizzle is what I thought scientists were. Or, like, Bill Nye or something like that. And I think it's really important to me for people to understand that there are 80,000 ways to be a scientist, and doing research is not the end-all, be-all to call yourself a scientist.
Jess: We are the Union of Concerned Scientists here. And I have to ask you both, as scientists, so, why are you concerned?
Jaida: Like, why am I concerned? I'm concerned because racism is still very much alive, and I want people that come into the field after me to have a better experience than I did. And I know, also, that I have had a better experience than the people that came into the field before me. I am concerned because it seems like nobody cares about what's happening to the ocean and how we're impacting it. And the fact that it's seen as opinion of whether or not climate change is real or not in this country, that is something that I find incredibly concerning, because most other countries in the world are like, "I'm sorry. Fact is optional now? What is happening in the U.S.?" And I'm like, "I don't know. I don't get it." I'm concerned because sharks are really cool, and I am terrified to see what an ocean without them would look like because we would have no clue what the consequences would be. There's way too many shark species, so... Not too many. There's so many shark species that if they all went extinct...
Amani: Never too many.
Jaida: Exactly. If they all went extinct, I would have no idea what is gonna happen to the ocean. And I am concerned because I want to keep having funding to do my research so we can find out more awesome stuff about the ocean. But I'm also optimistic that things are moving in the right direction, and I'm excited to see where things continue to go. And I'm excited for my research, and Amani's research, and everyone's research, to see how we can advance in science, and see what other cool things we can find, to try and put a positive spin on things.
Amani: I mean, same. All the same stuff. I mean, I think that the only thing I'd add is, like, I'm concerned for what won't be here for people who come after us if things don't change. Like, Jaida and I are both almost 25, and we've seen so many amazing things. And at the rate that we are removing animals from the planet, and as it relates to us, sharks, I am concerned that by the time I'm 80, someone will never see a hammerhead up close and personal, which is probably one of the most magical experiences that I have ever had. I get the same level of awe when I see a hammerhead that I did the first time I ever saw one.
Jaida: Every time.
Amani: Every single time. I probably look like an absolute insane person with how large my smile is every time I see a hammerhead. And I don't want someone to not be able to see all of the amazing, majestic animals that we have on this Earth. And I think that the way that we're headed if we don't do things is to the point where there is a lack of amazing animals for people to see.
Jaida: Yes. And I...
Amani: But to end on a high note, because that's what we're doing here, I do think that we are heading in the right direction, absolutely, with passing different treaties and being more concerned about how we are impacting the planet. I don't think that we are at a point where there is absolutely no way to go back. I think that it's a matter of all of us showing how much we care, and doing things to help the planet, and then, when I'm 80, hammerheads will still be around.
Jaida: There's always hope. And I don't care if it's false hope. There's always hope. Work towards the things that you think are important, and stand up for what you believe in.
Jess: That's excellent. You two just absolutely killed it in the best of ways. And just so you can tell the listeners, because I like to give people tools that they can take action, you know, to better their understanding of whatever it is we talk about on this wild and crazy show, tell them your website URL, tell them how to find you on social, and how to get involved.
Jaida: MISS is, you can find our website is misselasmo.org, and all of our socials, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter are miss_elasmo. We also didn't explain what an elasmobranch is. That is a subclass of organisms, cartilaginous fishes, a subclass that is comprised of sharks, skates, and rays. Anyway. Elasmos.
Jess: No, I'm glad you got it in there, because I was like, we didn't talk about it, but I was gonna make a footnote on the website. But thank you. Thank you.
And we will put links to all of that on the actual page for this podcast episode. So, thank you so much for being on "This is Science" with me, Jess Phoenix. And you two are doing fantastic work. Thank everybody at MISS for me. From me. For me? Thank them all, because they're doing life-changing, world-changing work, and it's really exciting to me to keep an eye on what you're doing and to help promote it when I can, because, you know, look, we're all concerned scientists. If we weren't concerned, we wouldn't be scientists. So, thanks so much, and you two have a blast with your Ph.D. work.