Welcome to the Blog of Black Women in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Science (BWEEMS)!
My name is Nikki Traylor-Knowles, Ph.D. I founded BWEEMS in July 2020 because I was tired of hearing that Black women don’t exist in the marine sciences. BWEEMS which currently has over 200 members, ranging from undergraduates to retired professors, was built to support innovative science, develop community, promote mentorship and professional growth of Black women in ecology, evolution, and marine science. I am an assistant professor in Marine Biology and Ecology at the University of Miami, RSMAS and my laboratory investigates the immune systems of the corals and sea anemones.
I am also a wife, and mother to twin three-year-olds and four cats. While BWEEMS is still in its humble beginnings, it is growing, formalizing, and expanding. I want to use this short blog to introduce you to my journey in science. My hope is that it will inspire other Black women to follow their passions, despite the challenges and naysayers.
I have known since I was 9 years old that I wanted to be a marine biologist. My family would take trips to Mexico and I would spend all day exploring in tide pools when the tide was low, and swimming in the surf when the tide was high. Through this exploration, I realized how much I loved the ocean and that I wanted to pursue a career in science.
Like most budding marine scientists, I was attracted to the megafauna- mainly sharks. And so I began to learn everything that I could about shark biology and decided that I wanted to study shark science and become a professor at a university. However, when it came time to go to college, I ended up at Johns Hopkins University, which didn't have any shark science, and in fact, the only marine-related work that was occurring was on coral reefs. So I started working on corals and developing a love for coral reefs, which was surprising given my devotion to sharks. I also started to severely doubt that I could be a marine scientist.
During my undergraduate career, I was working several part-time jobs, going to school full time, and dealing with many complicated family dynamics. My grades were low (~2.0 GPA), and I was struggling to stay afloat. My undergraduate research advisor was extremely negative about my chances in graduate school. He told me that “ I didn’t belong in graduate school because I wasn’t smart enough,” and that “ I won’t succeed because I don’t have the passion or commitment.” I continued to work in my undergraduate research advisor’s lab for my masters, all while still working several outside jobs to support myself financially. When I finished my master's, my GPA had improved, and I decided to take a year off to apply to Ph.D. programs and just take a break from school.
Despite the discouragement of my former undergraduate research advisor, I applied to graduate schools anyway. I applied to over 11 different graduate programs because I was so convinced that no one would accept me. I ended up at Boston University, and after a yearlong process of rotations in laboratories working on sharks and corals-I ended up in the coral laboratory to study the genetic effects of wound healing on sea anemones and corals.
During this time, I had several supportive advisors and was allowed to explore things on my own. I learned a lot about self-motivation and how to troubleshoot. I also grew up a lot emotionally. I had a lot of emotional issues to work on and mental growth that needed to happen. It was hard, and there were many dark periods. I had a string of abusive relationships, was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and eventually ended up suicidal. The years of emotional baggage caught up with me and almost became too much. It was at this point that I decided I needed to make some changes in my life and focus on my work and mental health.
After a couple of years of intense emotional work, I eventually recovered and stabilized. I completed my Ph.D. in 2011, and I moved to Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University where I did a 4-year post-doctoral research fellowship. During my postdoc, I was so free to explore scientific ideas, and I felt like I had a big leap mentally in how I thought. I had good scientific mentorship and ended up landing a job at the University of Miami, RSMAS in 2016. Currently, I now have a fully funded laboratory with five graduate students and four undergraduates. I am continually growing and expanding into new areas of leadership and science. It is scary, but also a lot of fun. Every day I learn something new!
I share these ups and downs of my background because I think it is important to understand that scientists are real people who have gone through real-life trauma and sadness, not just joys and successes. I was actively discouraged from pursuing science. I was told that I wasn’t “smart enough for graduate school” and I think that much of this attitude towards me stemmed from entrenched racism and sexism. I never met a Black women scientist until I was in graduate school. I never had any cheerleaders, until my Ph.D., to tell me that I was growing and learning and that these roadblocks were an important part of my success. I was lucky that I had a supportive family who always knew my potential and championed me along the way. I think this is why I am still here today.
So now, one of my personal life missions is to make sure that no other Black woman has to experience the shaming and belittling that I did. I want Black women to feel like they belong in academia and science BECAUSE THEY DO! Their voices are needed. Their innovation is needed. Their community and problem-solving approaches are needed.
I want to normalize support for Black women graduate students who are struggling with mental health issues, and provide a community for Black women who otherwise do not see anyone like themselves in science on a day-to-day basis. I want to develop a platform where Black women's voices will be heard, respected, and honored to promote scientific discoveries. BWEEMS is just the beginning of this mission. I am so excited for what our BWEEMS team is doing, and cannot wait for what the future has in store.
Written by Dr. Nikki Traylor-Knowles
Dr. Traylor-Knowles is an Assistant Professor in Marine Biology and Ecology at the University of Miami, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. She received her B.S. and M.S. in Cell and Molecular Biology from Johns Hopkins University and her PhD. in Biology from Boston University. Dr. Traylor-Knowles is passionate about innovative ocean conservation solutions and mentorship of BIPOC. She leads the Cnidarian Immunity Laboratory which investigates the mechanisms of immune function in corals. Her lab is particularly focused on developing innovative actions for saving coral reefs. She also founded the Black Women in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Science and has become an advocate for Black women in science and academia.