March 15, 2022

Breaking The Surface - Shark researcher Jasmine Graham on the surprisingly deep connections which attracted her to sharks

Breaking The Surface - Shark researcher Jasmine Graham on the surprisingly deep connections which attracted her to sharks

In this episode, I speak with Marine Biologist and Co-Founder of Minorities in Shark Science, Jasmine Graham.

I originally reached out to Jasmine because I had seen a talk given by her and her passion and enthusiasm for sharks and rays was infectious. But additionally, I was interested to learn more about the purpose of the organization she co-founded with three other women focused on creating opportunities in the marine sciences, a field largely inaccessible to women of color.

When we finally spoke, Jasmine spoke about how her passion for the ocean was born during time as a child with her grandmother on the Carolina coast, how studying sharks had surprisingly deeper echoes from her life experience and a gratifying shark dive off the southern California coast in La Jolla.

Scuba Diving, Free Diving, Ocean Environmentalism, Surfing, and Marine Science.

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Jason Elias: (00:09)
Hi and welcome to the Big Deep Podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean, people for whom that connection is so strong it defines some aspect of their life.

Jason Elias: (00:25)
Over the course of the series, we'll talk to all sorts of people, and in each episode, we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. Today, I speak with a shark researcher whose passion for the ocean echoes her personal path of breaking barriers in the marine sciences.

Jason Elias: (00:43)
Hello, this is your host, Jason Elias. Welcome to the Big Deep Podcast.

Jason Elias: (00:52)
In today's episode, I speak with marine biologist and co-founder of Minorities in Shark Science, Jasmin Graham. I originally reached out to Jasmin because I had seen a talk given by her, and her passion and enthusiasm for sharks and rays was infectious. But additionally, I was interested to learn more about the purpose of the organization she co-founded with three other women, focused on creating opportunities in the marine sciences, a field largely inaccessible to women of color.

Jason Elias: (01:17)
When we finally spoke, Jasmin spoke about how her passion for the ocean was born during her time as a child with her grandmother on the Carolina coast. How studying sharks had surprisingly deeper echoes from her life experience and a gratifying shark dive off the Southern California coast in La Jolla.

Jasmine Graham: (01:34)
Hello. My name is Jasmin Graham, and I am the president and CEO of Minorities in Shark Sciences. Minorities in Shark Sciences, or MISS for short, is dedicated to supporting women of color that are interested in pursuing careers in research or conservation of sharks and their relatives. So we do all sorts of things to support people along their career paths, starting with K through 12, all the way up to more senior scientists. And it's just a network for us to support each other and provide opportunities and help everyone succeed.

Jason Elias: (02:11)
Well, Jasmin, I really respect what you and MISS are doing to be as inclusive as possible to underrepresented voices in the ocean world. And that was one of the larger reasons I originally reached out. But now, I'd love to talk a little bit about more you personally. And I wonder, can you take me through where your ocean connection comes from, and what does that connection mean to you?

Jasmine Graham: (02:33)
I am a military brat, and my mother was in the Air Force when I was little. We moved around a lot. So I didn't really have a home aside from where my grandmother lived in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Jasmine Graham: (02:54)
So me and my dad would spend summers in Myrtle Beach. And so that was my home base, where I always went back to. And so I was in a coastal community, with a family that's been on the coast for generations, fishing, and that lives off of the ocean. So I was very connected to the ocean.

Jasmine Graham: (03:24)
I was always interested in science. It was always my favorite subject in school. And I love asking questions and trying to figure out the answers, which is what science is at its core. And I had an interest in exploring that a little deeper. So I think that I was always destined to be a scientist.

Jasmine Graham: (03:44)
It's hard to explain, but I feel that I have a spiritual connection to the ocean. And maybe that comes from moving around all the time, and the only place that was home was by the ocean. But I see feel at peace in water. It's where I go whenever I'm having a bad day. It's where I go to meditate. It's where I go to pray. That's where I feel the most connected to myself and everything around me. It reminds me of all of the things that there are in the world. Because you look out over the ocean and it looks like water, but you know so much stuff is going on underneath it and our entire ecosystem's down there. And it's pretty vast and incredible. And it just reminds me that I am just a very small part of a very large universe out there. And that makes all of my problems seem small.

Jason Elias: (04:37)
I think on a larger level, a lot of people on this show and myself as well, feel exactly that same kind of idea. But again, to go more personal, for you, what is it about sharks? Why do you feel such a deep connection and passion for researching sharks?

Jasmine Graham: (05:00)
That's a good question. I don't really have a good answer, but I never interacted with sharks prior to going to college. My family, their only interactions with the ocean was seafood and things that they eat. And they did eat sharks. So sharks were unimportant.

Jasmine Graham: (05:24)
I went to college and I ran into the man that would become my mentor, Gavin Naylor. And I just remember him being so excited about sharks. This grown man is so excited about this, this must be really cool. The whole lab was very excited about what they were doing.

Jasmine Graham: (05:46)
It was a group of animals that's really misunderstood and misrepresented in pop culture. And I was really drawn to that because I've always been drawn to things and people that are misunderstood, that have something much deeper than is presented.

Jasmine Graham: (06:04)
I also think that I have, what I would refer to as righteous anger management issues. When I was a kid, as soon as someone said you can't do this because you're a girl, I would get super mad and I would be like, no, you can't decide what people can and cannot do. That led to a lot of incident reports. But now I know how to better handle my righteous anger and I use my words instead of pushing kids off playground equipment.

Jasmine Graham: (06:38)
I think that that is one reason why I am probably drawn to sharks. Being a black woman, I feel like people have an idea of who I am, what I'm supposed to like, what I'm supposed to not like, who I'm supposed to be, how I'm supposed to act. And I think that deciding on face value what someone is or isn't, or what a group of animals is or isn't based on stereotype isn't helpful. And so in a way by working with sharks, I am combating negative stereotypes about sharks, just like I have been in my day-to-day life about aspects of my identity, being a black woman.

Jason Elias: (07:38)
Right. Well, thank you for sharing that. So essentially, what you're saying is that marine science is not always welcoming to minorities and underrepresented people. And certainly diving itself is primarily a white and wealthy demographic. So did you start MISS as a direct reaction and perhaps as one of the answers to the cultural, social, racial disparities you saw in the marine science world? And if so, can you speak to what minorities and shark science might offer as a possible remedy to that?

Jasmine Graham: (08:11)
Me, Carlee Jackson, Amani Webber-Schultz, and Jaida Elcock are the co-founders of MISS. And we met each other on Twitter. And it was the first time that I've ever met someone that was a woman, and was black, and was a shark scientist. I thought I was the only one. And I liken it to when you're in a desert, you're super thirsty, and you have that first sip of water and you don't realize how thirsty you were. And so meeting them, I didn't know how isolated and alone I felt. And then it was this magical experience. And we started talking to each other. And we really wanted to give other people that sense of relief, that sip of water. And so we jokingly said let's start a club. And that joke turned into a whole organization.

Jasmine Graham: (09:02)
But we opened the doors and a lot of people answered, way more than we thought were out there. We also thought we were alone, or maybe I knew one or two. I didn't know there were 369 other people. And it allows us to address some of the issues because a lot of us have experienced things where we're getting gaslighted, where we say, oh, I'm being mistreated, or I feel like this person is biased against me and that is why this is happening. And how people say like, oh, I'm sure they didn't mean it, or, well, how do you know that was a racist or sexist remark? So having a whole group of people that you could be like, this happened to me, and have them immediately say, I believe you, that happened to me too, and it's not okay. That makes you feel very validated. So you really depend on allies to believe you. So having this organization is super important.

Jason Elias: (10:00)
Wow, that's so interesting. And it's amazing you've built this community to reflect back and validate your experiences in the sciences. And I guess what I'm curious about is, do you find that reflecting back and validating, form a feedback loop that actually leads to better science?

Jasmine Graham: (10:19)
Yeah, for sure. I think that we're all better scientists, being part of this organization we are able to collaborate with people. So if you are working with someone and they're mistreating you and you feel like, well, I can't do that project anymore because this person is being a barrier, you can come back to the MISS folks and say, this is what I'm working on. And you might have someone say, oh, I also know how to do that. I can also help you. And so then we're able to work around some of the problematic people and institutions that have been putting up barriers. And then we also are able to give financial awards to projects, to do internships, things that they wouldn't have been able to afford otherwise, particularly people that don't have access to those sorts of things. Because it's only too late when rigor mortis has set in, is my opinion.

Jason Elias: (11:12)
So you obviously have a very rigorous, scientific way of approaching your interactions with the ocean. But I'd love to hear one story for you where you felt deeply connected to being in the water, some time that meant something to you beyond what happened on that dive.

Jasmine Graham: (11:40)
One of my most recent impactful experiences, I was in La Jolla. It was a nice day. I was meeting up with two of my colleagues. And one of them, [Dabi 00:11:58], had promised me that we were going to see eight different species of elasmobranch, so sharks, skates or rays. And so we were gearing up, going out, and our other colleague, Andy, he does drone work. So he actually put his drone up, because that's how he looks at leopard sharks in La Jolla. So he actually goes out with his GoPro, tries and finds where the leopard sharks are, finds a whole school of them.

Jasmine Graham: (12:41)
I have never experienced sharks in a school, so I was very excited about this, because swimming with sharks, oh you see one or two. Seeing a whole school is pretty cool. And we snorkel out, and we didn't even have to go that far. We weren't very deep.

Jasmine Graham: (13:04)
And I remember whenever we get to the point where we're just at the edge of the school and I see the first leopard shark, I'm like, yes, look at it, it's so beautiful. And then I see another one and then I see another one. And then next thing you know, the whole school is around me and I'm just looking to my left, looking to my right, leopard shark, leopard shark, leopard shark.

Jasmine Graham: (13:28)
And then I look down and I see shovelnose guitarfish. And I'm like, ah, we've got two species right here, this is all very exciting. And I see another guitarfish, more leopard sharks. And I see a round stingray goes by and I'm like, okay, we're at three. And then we keep snorkeling and I got to see a banded guitarfish, and that was super cool.

Jasmine Graham: (14:03)
Basically, I got to see seven of the eight species that he promised me, it was very exciting. And this was the best snorkel I'd ever been on. I'd never seen that many sharks and rays in one place. It's just mind-blowing.

Jason Elias: (14:36)
Finally, we end every interview and every episode with a single open-ended question, we ask everyone, we talk to. What does the ocean mean to you?

Jasmine Graham: (14:46)
The ocean to me means life. There's so much life in the ocean. It gives so much life. It provides so much life. So many cultures throughout human history have depended on the ocean. There are so many different ways that the ocean provides life.

Jason Elias: (15:07)
Thanks for listening to the Big Deep Podcast. Next time on Big Deep...

Speaker 3: (15:13)
Surfing is very much like a dance. Every wave you take off on is a new song that you need to move with. So it's always changing and that is both the biggest challenge, but also the most fun.

Jason Elias: (15:25)
We really appreciate you being on this journey into the Big Deep, as we explore an ocean of stories. If you like what we're doing, please make sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, please like, and comment, because those subscribes, likes and comments really make a difference.

Jason Elias: (15:42)
For more interviews, deeper discussions with our guests, photos and updates on anything you've heard. There's a lot more content at our website, Plus, if you know someone who you think we should talk to, let us know at our Big Deep website, as we are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our world's oceans. Thanks again for joining us.