Stories in Washington

Dr. Tiara Moore Redefines Belonging in Marine Science

By Leah Palmer, TNC Writer/Editor

Illustration of sea grasses underwater.
BIMS TNC celebrates Dr. Tiara Moore, founder of Black in Marine Science (BIMS), whose research and tireless efforts empower Black marine scientists to thrive in their field. © TNC

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) celebrates Dr. Tiara Moore, founder of Black in Marine Science (BIMS), whose research and tireless efforts empower Black marine scientists to thrive in their field. Alongside Dr. Moore, we acknowledge the need for scientific research led by Black scientists who have vested interest in climate issues that directly impact Black communities, including sea-level rise and nutrient pollution in our oceans. We celebrate the BIMS Institute, a joyful place for meaningful discovery, innovation and belonging.

This is a story about one Black woman’s life-long journey to silence a harmful message that she did not belong. This is a story about her journey to create a home for other Black scientists, who, like her, may feel isolated in their research and systemically opposed in most professional settings. This is a story about how the Black in Marine Science Institute came to be and TNC’s small part in it.

*Content Warning: This story contains discussion of self harm, suicide and systemic racism. Please take care while reading.

Dr. Tiara Moore with her head and shoulders above the ocean's surface.
Dr. Tiara Moore Dr. Moore wades in the water before a dive. © Amanda Wise; illustration by Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC

Wade in the Water

For Dr. Tiara Moore, the ocean offers an indescribable clarity. Despite pounds of pressure surrounding her body, she is safe in the gentle rocking and drifting. She describes a world beneath the surface, filled with ancestors’ whispers, “Take your freedom from the deep. You are safe, and you belong here.” To Dr. Moore, this comforting presence originates from countless souls who escaped the tragedy of Middle Passage—the pathway used on the Triangular Slave Trade—by freeing themselves in deep, dark waters. Their last act was full of self-determination. The spirits in the waters call her and other Black people back to a symbiotic relationship with water, which for so long was a site of terror. Though the ocean was used as a tool to traffic, enslave and isolate, it has always been so much more, and today it calls Dr. Moore and all Black marine scientists to restore this broken relationship.

A quote by Dr. Tiara Moore that says The ocean provides a freedom you definitely don't get walking on land. The fish aren't looking at me like Oh here's a black woman, let me go shoot her.

It’s almost an unfathomable paradigm, to be safe during a potentially life-threatening dive, but on most days, the ocean is the safest place Dr. Moore can be. This is because the ocean’s systems of currents and biodiversity are less threatening than the systems of neglect and harm she faced since she was a young girl.

All This for “Young T”

Dr. Moore admits, she usually avoids publicly sharing the stories of her childhood, but as she transitions from her work at The Nature Conservancy to a full-time focus on Black in Marine Science, it’s important for her to reflect on young Tiara. Her life and work today are both motivated by simple truths she would tell her younger self: "Young Tiara, girl, you have a purpose. You belong."

Dr. Tiara Moore swims underwater, with a post-it note next to her photo that says Tiara, girl, you have a purpose and you belong.
Simple Truths Words to live by. © BIMS; illustration by Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC

Born in Philly to a 17-year-old mother, who was eventually incarcerated and unable to care for her, Dr. Moore recalls lacking much-needed nurturing. At 10 months, she was sent to live with her grandma, Cathy, in South Carolina. In a fated family cycle, Dr. Moore notes Cathy also birthed her mother as a teenager, and by the time she took on full-time care of the young Tiara, Cathy had her hands full with other young children. In Cathy’s home, Dr. Moore says her presence caused resentment, and love was often dangled like carrots. “I was always made to feel like I should be grateful for whatever I get because I shouldn't get nothing. So, with every little bit, I had to make the best of it,” Dr. Moore recalls.

Quote from Tiara Moore that says I just read all the time—super Matilda-like—in the library, in the story, living this lavish life. And then Potter came out!

Dr. Moore found an escape in the pages of Harry Potter, where the sorting hat declared her a member of house Gryffindor and offered safety in the magical, candlelit halls. But Dr. Moore wasn’t just reading for reading’s sake. In school, she “found out if you read, you can take these little tests and they give you a free pizza.” She thought to herself, “Oh! Hell, I'm about to read all the books!”

Illustration of a small child sitting in a giant shell underwater.
Young Tiara The imagination of a young girl. © Illustration by Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC

Young Tiara was cultivating a space for her imagination to come alive, paid for slice by slice, page by page. Perhaps it was accelerated reading that allowed her to dream up the big life she lives now, or maybe it was a calling from the Atlantic Ocean nearby her home, but Dr. Moore knew higher education was the next step for her.

Dr. Tiara Moore works in a lab.
Dr. Moore at Work Dr. Tiara Moore processes eDNA samples from TNC's Ellsworth Creek Preserve. © Courtney Baxter/TNC

Searching for Belonging in Predominantly White Institutions

If the Ph.D. behind her name is any indication, Dr. Moore was a determined student. However, her time in ivory towers and university labs is characterized by familiar feelings of not belonging—especially once she reached graduate and postdoc settings. Dr. Moore recalls colleagues challenging her sense of belonging with passing comments, like telling her, “I've never worked with a black woman who has a Ph.D.” Perhaps her talents were not properly valued because her presence was unexpected. On some occasions, confused colleagues requested Dr. Moore “go get coffee.” This phenomenon is common for Black marine scientists, who are often thrown into a world of predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Recent studies suggest PWIs offer fewer experiential (hands-on) learning opportunities when compared to Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs). Oftentimes the traditional PWI classroom incorporates less discussion and relationship-based education, which is a far cry from how Black communities naturally organize and support each other’s learning—embracing oral histories, experimentation and experiences as credible ways of knowing. Black people in PWIs may feel they cannot approach professors and mentors because their interactions are often colored by cultural difference and bias. The same is true in reverse.

Two side-by-side photos showing Dr. Tiara Moore working in a lab, along with an assistant.
In the Lab Dr. Tiara Moore (left) processes eDNA samples from TNC's Ellsworth Creek Preserve. Her lab assistant looks on. © Courtney Baxter/TNC

Knowing all this, Dr. Moore’s education experiences are sadly predictable, as she was typically the only Black student in her classrooms. When she did attend an HBCU (Hampton University, Virginia), her marine science professors were mostly white. Initially, Dr. Moore did not consider lack of representation in her field a concern, but as she moved beyond her undergraduate career, she became more aware of her isolation. She says, “I really did not understand the hugeness of being a Black woman in marine science until I was basically pushed out of the space. And I couldn't understand why.”

As she ponders this, Dr. Moore recognizes several truths at play, including tokenization and virtue signaling, which makes an organization appear “good” while the core of its operations and philosophies remain stubbornly harmful. For example, Dr. Moore remembers a moment at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where her academic advisor and dissertation chair accidentally included her on an email thread with the rest of her committee members. The advisor approved Dr. Moore’s dissertation despite saying, “she can't write a complete sentence. I'm so concerned for her postdoc.”

Quote by Tiara Moore that says The same lady who said I couldn't write a complete sentence wrote my letter of recommendation for the postdoc. So, it was confusing.

For Dr. Moore, these comments were as good as a betrayal and grounds for questioning her merits and value. Once again, the fear that she did not belong was suddenly triggered. “Literally, my whole world crashes…While I am on this educational journey, I am losing hope, feeling it doesn't really matter what I do. Maybe I'll never be good enough. I was really struggling with that,” she says. These and many other instances of overt racism sent Dr. Moore into a depression, and, subsequently, she survived multiple suicide attempts. “I couldn't believe a place I chose to be triggered the same feelings of not being wanted there or not belonging. One night I tearfully asked myself, would I ever belong anywhere? Recognizing that familiar feeling of hopelessness, I knew I needed to get help,” she reflects.

BIMS Redefines Belonging in Marine Science

Healing from these incidents meant beginning therapy, facilitating difficult conversations with her family members and never giving up on her career in marine science—beginning work at TNC in July 2019. With the leadership of Dr. Phil Levin, lead scientist for TNC’s work here in Washington state, Dr. Moore’s eDNA research produced interesting findings that can help inform restoration of biodiversity in coastal forests. Dr. Levin recognizes Dr. Moore’s intervention in marine science includes stewarding BIMS, and he was an early advocate who approved adding BIMS duties to her TNC job description. “Dr. Moore’s eDNA study is an example of research that can inform conservation of a vital ecosystem that supports the well-being of the region’s diverse residents. Furthermore, it has been an honor to watch Dr. Moore grow into a leader who creates so many opportunities for brilliant, yet often overlooked, thinkers in our field,” said Levin.

Dr. Tiara Moore sits in a muddy field and collects samples.
In the Field Dr. Moore collects eDNA samples. © Courtesy of Dr. Tiara Moore

The marine science community experienced a surge of attention on systemic inequity in 2020. Conservationists are still grappling with a shared history of divesting resources and climate interventions from Black communities. In tandem with these conversations, Dr. Moore organized the first BIMS Week, which started with a tweet. “It was purely virtual. I just tweeted, ‘Hey, where're the other Black marine scientists at?’" Many responded with a desire to connect and collaborate. Her new virtual community challenged isolation and firmed up a sense of belonging for the 2% of marine scientists who identify as Black worldwide.

Quote that says Dr. Moore recognizes she is defying odds: only 2% of children with incarcerated mothers will graduate from college. Only 2% of marine scientists are black.
Sources Advocates for Children of Incarcerated Parents and data presented on Zippia.

This was only the first step toward growing BIMS to its current 5-year sustainability plan. Early parts of the start-up process included building a unique identity that could support a long-term vision. Carrie Krueger, director of marketing at TNC in Washington, played a supportive role in this process. “The marketing team at TNC worked together to firm up Dr. Moore’s vision by creating valuable brand clarity. It was my honor to help her discover communication strategies that work well for her audiences and will carry her far.”

Sea-Level Rise and Nutrient Pollution in Black Communities

Today, Dr. Moore says BIMS works “to mitigate climate change for Black people who are most impacted. I think that is the changing point of the conversation,” she says. Dr. Moore distinguishes BIMS efforts from other prominent marine science institutions, like Scripps Institution of Oceanography in CA, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in MA and University of Washington. She notes at these PWIs, Black scientists are usually the only Black folks in the lab.

Quote from Tiara Moore that says What is we had a space that was safe for us?

She goes on, “Then you go outside, and you're also the only Black person in your community, because [the institutions are] in predominantly white areas.” Thus, the future of BIMS includes building an institute that is "actually in communities where Black people live.” Dr. Moore hopes to build in Hampton, Virginia, because it “has a population of over 50% Black people [who] all live there on the water and are directly impacted by sea-level rise” and nutrient pollution.

A collage of three photos showing people working in an around the ocean.
Field Research Members of Black in Marine Science pictured during field research. © BIMS; illustrations by Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC

Dr. Moore breaks down the issues taking place in the Chesapeake Bay, where Black fishermen and oyster harvesters have progressively watched the declining health of their homes. She says, “the Chesapeake Bay, around the Hampton area is a mess, but up north it's better. Why is that? Because they have marine scientists in the Boston area who are making sure it's protected....When you have millions of federal dollars going to predominantly white organizations, that means predominantly white people are being protected, period. It’s about resource distribution.”

Dr. Camille Gaynus, board chair at Black in Marine Science, is proud of Dr. Moore’s accomplishments, recognizing them as a gamechanger for coastal communities and the industries that rely on healthy waters. “Dr. Moore has a vision for ocean conservation that incorporates Black people on so many levels. As a Black marine scientist who seriously considered leaving the field, it has been through BIMS that my passion for the ocean has been reinvigorated. Her vision, however, goes far beyond me and making sure that Black professionals are heard and a part of science; she has made sure that other Black peoples and communities are involved in the research, education and movement of ocean conservation. She knows the issues facing our oceans are serious and it is going to take all of us to be a part of the myriad of solutions, and that cannot happen if we continue to exclude members of our global world based on skin color. Dr. Moore's vision mirrored through BIMS will act as a courier to dismantle systematic racism. The research BIMS plans to do in the Chesapeake and their current work in the Caribbean and Midwest serve as a testament to the vision becoming a reality, and I know it will only grow, and the reach BIMS has will expand to incorporate the voices and contributions of Black peoples globally.”

Collage of four photos showing people working in, under, or near the ocean.
Marine Science Members of Black in Marine Science pictured during field research. © BIMS; illustrations by Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC

Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Moore is actively cultivating interest in marine science among Black students, who may not already imagine themselves in the field. In some ways, she echoes the whispers she once heard in the ocean, welcoming her to swim, to explore, to listen, to observe, to belong. For descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas, this is a powerful calling back to water. This is a powerful undoing after centuries of experiencing water as trauma sites, compounded by recent Jim Crow laws that once deterred Black people from public swimming pools. A 2008 NPR article reported over 50% of African Americans cannot swim. Dr. Moore believes there’s an inherent fear of water among the Black community. She reflects, “you know, I remember I was talking to my grandma about why she didn't swim. And she said, ‘Oh, yeah. White people could just throw acid into pools’ back in her day.”

A collage of four photos of people working in the ocean.
Ocean Research Members of Black in Marine Science pictured during field research. © BIMS; illustrations by Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC

Dr. Moore’s healing through trauma naturally created inroads for more Black people to return to an ocean that welcomes all of us. "Even when I'm scuba diving, I feel there's a connection to the ancestors in the water. They’re saying, ‘Hey, we was waiting for you this whole time. I'm glad you made it. Let me show you the answers to climate change, to save our communities and to bring us together.’” I really feel the work we're doing at BIMS is really changing us and empowering us.”

Support a Bright Future for BIMS

The Nature Conservancy will continue its partnership with BIMS, as Dr. Moore leads more than 300 members across the globe to support one another’s scientific research. “It has been TNC’s privilege to work alongside Dr. Moore in her time here at our Washington field office, and it will be an honor to continue a mutual partnership. Networks and platforms like BIMS are supporting the emerging generation of science and environmental leaders, and it’s truly an inspiration to support that work,” said Mike Stevens, state director for the Washington chapter.

A map of the United States showing the locations of BIMS members.
BIMS Reach Illustrated map shows how BIMS’ wide membership reaches across the United States and beyond. © Illustration by Erica Simek Sloniker/TNC

If you are inspired by Dr. Moore’s work and legacy, you are encouraged to support her in efforts to secure $35 million toward a stand-alone lab for BIMS. Whether or not you are able to make a financial investment, there are other ways you can show support.

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