Narrowing the Diversity Gap in Marine Science

Contemplating a marine science career, Warner Ithier-Guzmán took a 5-month break from his bachelor's program in biology at InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico to participate in the Minorities in Marine Science Undergraduate Program (MIMSUP) at Western Washington University's Shannon Point Marine Center (SPMC). The program exposed him to a range of marine science professions and taught him many of the skills needed to pursue them.

He chose one. "I gained experience in marine pollution and how it affects others, and that's exactly what I'm doing right now," he says. Currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, Ithier-Guzmán is studying the occurrence of radionuclides -- radioactive species of atoms found in the environment -- in the sediments of Puerto Rican waters.

Ithier-Guzmán is one of more than 50 MIMSUP alumni to enter a career in marine science and related fields because of the program. Since 1991, MIMSUP has offered underrepresented students -- Latinos, Hispanics, African-Americans, Pacific Islanders, Alaskan Natives, and Native Americans -- a chance to realize their academic and professional career opportunities in marine science. Seventy-seven percent of MIMSUP participants who completed the program finished their baccalaureate degrees.

Dan Penttila of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife teaches MIMSUP students Adriana Campos (center) and Lisa Marko (right) about marine fish diversity.

A Desire to Make Changes

The need for more minorities in marine science has been apparent for a long time. "In the late 1980's, there was increasing discussion within the ocean-science community concerning the virtual absence of minority individuals pursuing careers in the discipline," says Stephen Sulkin, director of SPMC. So Sulkin developed the idea for MIMSUP and approached the National Science Foundation (NSF) for funding.

MIMSUP has met the demand by teaching and mentoring interested minorities. Every year the program scours the nation for eight talented students of color, who have at least a junior standing in college and who are pondering marine science careers. MIMSUP is only offered from January to June each year, so participants must take a temporary leave of absence from their undergraduate programs to attend. During the winter and spring quarters at SPMC, MIMSUP immerses students in marine-science coursework and independent research projects, exposing them to the latest lab and field techniques.

MIMSUP students Adriana Veloza (left) and Melanie Clark (right) use a quadrat to count algae and invertebrates as part of an intertidal beach survey.

MIMSUP hones students' presentation, critical thinking, and writing skills by having students prepare and conduct poster and oral presentations at local and national scientific meetings. The program also provides participants with professional development workshops, teaching experiences at local elementary schools, and tours of private industries, government agencies, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations.

Making an Impact

The November 2003 issue of the Journal of Geoscience Education highlighted MIMSUP's progress. At the time, 101 participants had completed the MIMSUP program and 78 of them, or 77%, went on to complete bachelor's degrees. Out of the 78 college graduates, 65% were working in marine science or related fields; some alumni, for instance became elementary school teachers, research assistants, and consultants. Moreover, 18 went on to complete graduate degrees, while 24 were still matriculating in masters or doctoral programs. Two were National Institutes of Health (NIH) postdoctoral fellows.

MIMSUP students Gina Perez (left) and Kehaulani Giles (right), aboard a research vessel, admire the fish and invertebrates collected in a benthic dredge.

Bingham and colleagues have been recognized nationally for their hard work and dedication. SPMC was one of six institutions to get the 2002 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math, and Engineering Mentoring, and Bingham received the 2003 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Excellence Award for Promoting Diversity in Coastal and Ocean Resource Management.

A Major Turning Point

MIMSUP has made a difference in the lives of its students. After working with a marine biologist at University of Kansas, Shawn Arellano thought about getting a graduate degree in marine biology, but she and her parents didn't think that there were decent jobs in the field. Arellano was able to relieve all their doubts after she participated in MIMSUP in 2000. "I was able to give my parents a list of the types of jobs I can get as a marine biologist and the reassurance we all needed that I was making the right decision." Today, Arellano is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oregon, specializing in marine invertebrate larval biology and ecology.

MIMSUP student, Khary Johnson teaches second graders about crabs.

Participation in MIMSUP in 1991 caused Nancy Aguilar-Roca to consider graduate school. Her experiences in the program qualified her for a summer undergraduate research fellowship at UC-San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which in turn led Aguilar-Roca into a Ph.D. program there. Aguilar-Roca describes herself as a comparative physiologist, but she is now a postdoc at UC-Irvine studying genomics and bioinformatics to broaden her technical repertoire in preparation for a faculty job.

Making the transition into new fields has been challenging, but recalling her time with MIMSUP has helped her along. "Going through MIMSUP, I learned that I had the capacity to do a lot more than I ever thought . . . [When] I think back to that time, I realize, yes, I can do new things and I can learn a lot, and I can be successful in what I try." Aguilar-Roca still turns to MIMSUP officials for guidance and support.

MIMSUP has influenced the career paths of many minorities. According to Bingham the program works because of faculty, staff, and peer mentoring. "It's absolutely critical that we have consistent, very high quantity and quality time with the students while they're here," Bingham says. "We have a very strong sense of 'everybody's here for you.' We become family -- they become part of us -- and that's what keeps them contacting us." Says Sulkin: ". . . students come to us with potential; our job is to enable them to realize it."

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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