A U.S. Vice President, Atmospheric Scientist, And Oceanographer

It is Black History Month, and I always try to share a perspective on it from my lens as a scientist. While many people may roll their eyes at the notion of a “Black History Month,: it is important to understand that such a month is not a threat or minimization to anyone else. In fact, it is an opportunity for everyone to share in some history that may not have been a part of your experience. As great as he was, there is far more to know about than Dr. Martin Luther King. Last week I had the honor of co-moderating, along with Professor Isaiah Bolden, a discussion about climate change with the Vice President of the United States. Only this week did the significance of that moment hit me.

The occasion was a co-moderated discussion with Vice President Kamala Harris on climate change and recent bipartisan efforts to move beyond climate delays. A press release issued by Georgia Institute of Technology said, “….Harris was joined by Isaiah Bolden, assistant professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and James Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia.” The Vice President was sitting on a stage discussing climate change with a Black oceanographer and a Black atmospheric scientist.

Let’s review some numbers. How many Black U.S. Vice Presidents has the country had? – Oh, right, just one and she is the first woman to hold that position also. Well, let’s explore the world of oceanography. Professor Isaiah Bolden, my co-moderator, is an oceanographer and biogeochemist at Georgia Tech. According to his website, “His research is primarily aimed at understanding the health and impacts of climate change on modern and ancient coral reef ecosystems and other coastal environments.” He has also taken on the mantle of environmental research and outreach to improve community resiliency and diversity in geosciences.

Black History Month, created by Carter G. Woodson in 1926, is about sharing new knowledge. Did you know that according to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution blog, “….Just 58 doctorate degrees (ocean sciences) were awarded to Black students from 1976 to 2016, a little over 1% of the total degrees given.” Black people make up roughly 13% of the U.S. population. 58 doctorate degrees in 40 years works out to less than 2 per year.

Atmospheric sciences, my field, is no better. Data from the American Meteorological Society, of which I served as its 2nd Black President, suggest that only 2% of its membership is Black. I distinctly remember a colleague telling me that doctorate statistics kept by the National Science Foundation significantly increased when my degree was conferred in 1999. Professor Vernon Morris’ study on atmospheric sciences demographics revealed a startling fact that I can affirm. In 2021, he wrote that there are less than 10 Black atmospheric scientists in tenure-track positions in all atmospheric science PhD-granting programs in the United States.

By the way, I am keenly aware that Vice President Harris is biracial and is the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants. She strongly embraces her cultures from what I can tell. Nadra Nittle’s commentary, “Kamala Harris is Asian and Black. That shouldn’t be confusing in 2020 — but it is to some” is an excellent discussion of the Vice President’s Black identity.

There is work to do within the Geosciences; however, this moment in Black History cannot be overlooked. In February 2023 two black scholars and black woman, who just happens to be the Vice President of the United States, sat on a stage discussing climate, environmental policy, and why it matters to all communities, but particularly those with people that look like them.

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