Three members of our Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) Response Team, Meghyn Fountain, Taylor Walters, and Teni Burrows, started 2023 off strong by representing The Perry Institute in Miami, Florida at the first ever BWEEMS (Black Women in Ecology Evolution and Marine Science) Conference, hosted at the University of Miami Rosenstiel Campus. The group shared that as black women in their early careers, they were honored and excited to partake in their first ever science conference, and luckily for them, the event was strategically fashioned to be a safe supportive space filled with brilliant black women. When asked about attending the BWEEMS conference, the team described the experience as “heartwarming, insightful, reaffirming, and inspiring.” “Attending this conference was one of the best professional experiences I’ve had since entering the field of marine science,” Taylor stated.
The BWEEMS organization was created when the founder, Dr. Nikki Traylor-Knowles became growingly frustrated with feeling like the only black women in marine science and did what most people do today: let it out on social media. In June 2020, Nikki sent a tweet that fueled the formation of an online community of black women scientists from around the world, and today, the community has welcomed over 200 black women scientists, including three members of the PIMS coral team as well as Dr. Karlisa Callwood, Director of Community, Conservation, Education & Action (CCEA) as a board member of the organization.
The BWEEMS mantra “Connection, Collaboration, Community” perfectly captures the essence of this online collective, and that energy was successfully transferred to the conference, the global group’s first opportunity to meet in person.
With a two-day agenda filled with member sessions, health and wellness, keynote speakers and group socials, the BWEEMS team created an experience that was insightful, motivating, and of course, so much fun. Speaking sessions were dedicated to presenting ideas and sharing knowledge while deeper conversations were encouraged during wellness and break times.
Day 1’s opening ceremony set the tone for the conference with lively welcome speeches by Dr. Alex Davis and Dr. Traylor-Knowles, Secretary and Founder of BWEEMS. Their happy tears showed the dedication it took to make this event happen and with that, the room was inspired to make it count. In session 1, BWEEMS members had the opportunity to present their research studies on various topics including coral resilience, the evolution of marine crabs, and honeybee microbiome, just to name a few. Taylor expressed that one of her favorite presentations was done by Dr. Barbara Pinheiro, who talked about the Rocas Atoll and how it ‘modulates and interferes with seawater carbonate.’ “You could feel the support and admiration in the room,” Meghyn claimed. To incorporate movement and outdoor time, the team facilitated a beach clean up along the Rosenstiel Campus and nearby dock, which wasn’t very dirty at all (one point for humanity!)
The evening’s keynote speaker, Hazel Wong, had a riveting message expressing the trials of being overlooked and mistreated in the workspace because of her skin tone, and even though she still occasionally experiences fear, she chooses to show up and shine. Her qualifications and accomplishments as a black woman in science, paired with her uplifting message encouraged all listeners to take up space, own their identity, and never allow others to place them in a box.
Research presentations continued on day 2 with poster displays of various research projects. Teni expressed deep appreciation for the members that shared their coral studies in French Polynesia. “As a coral technician in The Bahamas, to have shared experiences with people an entire ocean and several time zones away was very validating.” Meghyn added, “one of my favorite presentations was done by Jada Alexander, who used macroalgae to quantify anthropogenic stress on agal-dominated reefs.” The pitch session that followed gave scientists the chance to pitch current projects, jobs and research opportunities to fellow black women scientists in the room. Members like Aaliyah Griffith, the CEO of ‘Mahogany Mermaids’, encouraged others to join her non-profit organization that provides mentorship to younger black people interested in the marine science field. This was the epitome of creating opportunity and gave members the chance to support each other and form connections. The pitch session was concluded by a workshop that allowed all members to delve deeper into their topics of interest, and lastly, the final keynote speaker, Dr. Kilan Ashad-Bishop, a biomedical scientist and advocate for inclusion, delivered a deeply relatable message focused on influencing positive social changes.
Ending the conference on a note just as lively as the opening ceremony, the closing reception gave the opportunity for everyone to let their hair down, share laughs, dance and have fun. It was a wonderful way to make lasting connections and memories, and all and all, a bittersweet ending to a weekend of black magic.
In retrospect, Taylor expressed that seeing other black women scientists who were passionate about what they do and knowing there are people from all walks of life sharing similar experiences in this field really secured her appreciation for having a space to be comfortable. The team all agreed that it was invigorating to be exposed to so many different niches of ecology, evolution and marine science.
Creating safe spaces for underrepresented groups like black women in sciences creates inner communities that work to close the gaps caused by age and distance, and fuel camaraderie across cities, states and even countries. With a special shout-out to BWEEMS, PIMS acknowledges and encourages the importance of creating spaces like these to show others they are not alone, and gives a special thanks to Dr. Nikki Traylor-Knowles, staff, and members of BWEEMS for a memorable start to the movement.
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