Two UC Santa Barbara students were awarded funding as recipients of the 2023 Aquarium of the Pacific’s African American Scholar Program. The program will provide the recipients, Bryce Barbee and Jada Alexander, with an award of $10,000 to support their research, along with various professional and educational opportunities to engage with the aquarium.
The Aquarium of the Pacific, located in Long Beach, is the largest aquarium in Southern California, according to its website. It established the African American Scholar Program in 2021 to provide financial support and community engagement for students pursuing marine science and other fields related to the aquarium.
This year, the program welcomed 10 students from eight campuses across California, including undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students.
Barbee, a first-year doctoral student studying behavioral ecology, said he always knew he wanted to pursue biology from watching shows like “Animal Planet” and documentaries like “Planet Earth” since childhood.
“I used to watch a good amount of the ‘Animal Planet’ type shows and the ‘Planet Earth’ documentaries,” he said. “I knew for a while that bio was going to be my route. I remember in fifth grade dressing up as a biologist and knowing stuff with bio, and my parents were super supportive of it.”
Taking inspiration from these shows, Barbee aspired to be the “person behind the scenes,” with a knowledge of behavioral ecology to understand animal patterns and behavior and guide the nature broadcasters he had grown up watching on TV.
“I know somebody had to be showing David Attenborough where this group of monkeys would be hanging out. He had to be connected with somebody who knew where they were going to be, and I wanted to be that person,” Barbee said, which directed him to the study of field biology.
He had been involved with various behavioral ecology research labs during his undergraduate years at UC Los Angeles. During his second year, he became involved with The Diversity Project at UCLA, a 10-week-long summer program that introduces students from underrepresented groups to the world of marine biology and research. Barbee found a love for marine science during his time doing fieldwork in Mo’orea, French Polynesia, with the program.
Recalling his time in French Polynesia in the summer after his third year, Barbee said the work of a field biologist studying different communities of microalgae off the island’s coast was intense.
“We were in the water constantly, and then it was crunch time in the library,” Barbee said. “We were doing a scavenger hunt of all these different species of algae that we were finding in the field, and then bringing it back to the lab and measuring the different traits of the algae.”
Barbee said being a part of the program was “a game changer” for him because it introduced him to a community of scholars who shared his passions and similar interests in research, providing a network where he learned about different networking opportunities in the field. Through a mentor in the project, he learned about the scholar program at the Aquarium of the Pacific and was encouraged to apply.
Barbee spoke to the importance of the connections that the Diversity Project and the Aquarium’s African American Scholar Program provide because of their work supporting underrepresented groups.
“Oftentimes, there’s a financial barrier when working with underrepresented groups [in the field],” Barbee said. “You don’t have to drop, however much it [costs], to even get trained to even be able to try and do the research. The program just helps us all out a huge amount for anybody who’s trying to go into marine research.”
Barbee is currently working on establishing the DIVERsity in Diving program at UCSB, which aims to eliminate barriers for those interested in marine studies by providing financial support and mentorship. He hopes the program will be a space for other marginalized identities to break into the field and find a community as he did with his experiences in the Diversity Project and aquarium program.
Third-year environmental studies major Jada Alexander oftentimes found herself being the only Black surfer in the water or Black woman in her S.T.E.M. classes. She said she never envisioned herself being in the marine science field prior to participating in the Diversity Project and further being accepted into the African American Scholar Program.
“A lot of people believe that Black people are not supposed to be near the water,” Alexander said. “Black people have been excluded from spaces around water and activities surrounding water for a very long time.”
After hearing about the Diversity Project from a friend, Alexander said she took the chance to apply after initial doubts and was later accepted. She was then spending her summer in French Polynesia and was “completely hooked” on marine biology research from her time diving in the ocean.
“We were 70 feet down in the water and there are these giant blades of kelp, eight to 10 feet long,” Alexander said when describing one of her dives. “It’s this giant kelp forest. It feels like a completely new world. It’s like going to the forest but underwater you’ve never seen before.”
Alexander said both the Diversity Project and the aquarium program provided her with opportunities and resources to continue her journey in pursuing marine studies, a field that can be difficult for marginalized communities to access.
“If you’re a person of color, you have to work a lot harder than other people. So, for me, getting into this field, it’s really hard to juggle making connections,” she said. “[The programs] do that while giving them the resources that they need to succeed.”
Alexander said these connections offered support and reassurance that she can succeed in her studies as a Black woman in a S.T.E.M. field. She encouraged other students of color to persevere through the barriers against them and pursue their studies.
“A lot of times, I’m the only woman of color in the room. I think part of the reason that I’m doing this is to be able to set an example,” she said. “It’s possible that you can be a Black woman and a scientist. And that also means a lot to me because I would like to show other people that it’s available to them.”
As part of her research studies at UCSB, Alexander works with the education department on a project to uplift the voices of young Black women and other people of color to better understand how to make spaces in academia more accessible for them.
“Black people can be here. Black people can do this. A lot of people have reached out their hands for me to get here. So, I’d really like to reach out my hands for the next generation of young Black scientists,” she said.
A version of this article appeared on p. 3 of the March 9, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.