Trailblazers in Marine Biology

We’re celebrating two inspiring scientists in the field

Every scientific advancement is built upon the foundational discoveries that came before it. Recognizing the history of ocean research—and the scientists behind it—is an important step in understanding how we approach marine conservation today.

There are a number of notable marine scientists who are little known outside of small scientific circles. This is especially true of scientists from marginalized backgrounds whose contributions were downplayed or overlooked because of their race, gender, economic status, country of origin and more.

At Ocean Conservancy, we are fortunate to look to the work of marine scientists and conservationists of the past and the present to implement effective, long-term solutions to our ocean’s biggest problems. Our work would not be possible without that of ocean advocates before us; because of this, it is both a pleasure and responsibility to research and amplify those who contributed to our understanding of our ocean.

I am excited to highlight two such researchers: Ernest Everett Just and Roger Arliner Young. Both were trailblazers in the field of marine biology, and both faced significant hurdles and prejudices throughout their careers.

Ernest Everett Just

Born in South Carolina in 1883, Ernest Everett Just was always a voracious student. His mother, Mary Matthews Just, was a teacher who helped found one of the first Black town governments in South Carolina, now part of modern-day Charleston. He enrolled in South Carolina College at just 13 to become a teacher like his mother. He later attended Dartmouth College, where he excelled and graduated with a degree in Zoology—at his graduation, he was the only African American student.

Just became a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and spent his summers on the coast of Massachusetts at the Marine Biology Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole. He was the first African American to study at the prestigious lab, and it was there that he made his most significant discoveries.

He analyzed eggs from marine invertebrates like sea urchins and documented the steps of development, which greatly expanded our understanding of fertilization, egg formation and division and more. He received his Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Chicago in 1916 and spent decades traveling back and forth to the New England coast to continue his work. He continued to study fertilization in marine invertebrates, including step-by-step descriptions of how sperm unites with an egg and how the egg surface affects this process.

Despite his incredible achievements—including more than 70 scientific papers—Just encountered racism and prejudice throughout his career. Other academic institutions would not hire him because of his race, so he moved abroad to Europe. He died in 1941, and scientists still cite his work today. Read more about Ernest Everett Just’s research and legacy. 

“We feel the beauty of nature because we are part of nature and because we know that however much in our separate domains we abstract from the unity of nature, this unity remains.” – Ernest Everett Just

 Roger Arliner Young

Roger Arliner Young was the first African-American woman to achieve a Ph.D. in Zoology. She was a researcher and an activist who fought to eliminate racism, sexism and classism.

Young grew up in Pennsylvania before attending Howard University where she studied under none other than Ernest Everett Just. The two of them formed a strong bond of mentorship and support, and Just encouraged her to stay in the sciences and helped her find funding for graduate school. After beginning her Ph.D. studies at the University of Chicago, Young completed them at the University of Pennsylvania where she received her doctorate in Zoology.

She was the first Black woman to publish in the journal Science but was also excluded from authorship on numerous papers to which she contributed throughout her master’s and doctoral studies. Today, she is remembered for her scientific contributions—such as describing the internal structure of the single-celled Paramecium and for the examples of how she fought the racism and sexism she encountered throughout her career. Her legacy is partially captured now in the Roger Arliner Young Diversity Fellowship Program—a paid fellowship for recent college undergraduates that focuses on increasing career opportunities for historically underrepresented communities in the U.S. conservation sector.

There is much, much more to Young’s story—I encourage you to read this article that takes an in-depth look at her science, activism and challenges.

These two are just examples of many scientists whose contributions to modern marine science and conservation were made in the face of institutional racism and prejudice. In honor of Ernest Everett Just and Roger Arliner Young, I hope you will join me in seeking out more stories of marine scientists and conservationists who set the stage for our work today.

Our work is focused on solving some of the greatest threats facing our ocean today. We bring people, science and policy together to champion innovative solutions and fight for a sustainable ocean.
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