Interview

What were some of the things you liked to do when you were growing up?

I grew up in Dallas, Texas. As a kid, I was an outdoors person, and I did a lot of reading. I played kickball, flew kites with my dad in the park, that type of thing. My mom put me in the summer book-reading club at the public library. We were rewarded based on the number of books we read. And since I liked receiving rewards, I zoomed through a lot of books each summer, which is the reason I am able to read so fast now.

At church as a little kid, I always liked to take care of the babies in the nursery. I remember sneaking out of my Sunday school class to help the little old ladies in the nursery. The funny thing is that they let me get away with it!

How did you become interested in science?

As a child, I watched absolutely anything on TV that had to do with science. I can remember PBS being one of my favorite TV channels. I also remember being a Jacques Cousteau nut! Because I was identified as having relatively high intellectual abilities, after completing kindergarten, I was transferred to a different school and placed in a talented and gifted program. As part of this program, in third grade, I had to do an independent study project. I selected dolphins as the topic for my project. Each year afterwards, up through the end of high school, I always picked some aspect of the ocean as a topic of my independent study projects.

I remember during the summer between my fifth and sixth grade years, my parents took me to Alabama to meet the daughter of one of my Dad's Lions Club buddies. She was a graduate student in marine biology. Her name was Beth Goodwin. She was really cool. She even had a dog. And she spent a day with a little fifth grader, rowing in a boat and talking about oceanography. By the time I came back to school in sixth grade, Beth was my role model, my idol. I wanted to be like her. That year my independent study project focused on examining the differences between dolphins and porpoises. I remember calling Beth to ask her to come to Dallas from California to be part of my class presentation. Of course she couldn't make it, but she did send me a letter describing the differences. My mom still has the letter somewhere. I need to find it. Beth and that letter really excited me and kept my interest in the ocean going.

When did you decide that you wanted to become a scientist?

I always knew I was going to be scientist. I had a reputation in junior high or maybe even before then of being a marine science type person. Even though Dallas is not anywhere near a beach, and in spite of the fact that I did not know any aquatic scientists, everybody encouraged me to pursue my dream of becoming an oceanographer. When the time came for college, it was just a matter of what school I was going to attend. I was accepted to a couple of different universities, but one of them offered me a full scholarship, so that made the choice easy. I didn't want my parents to have to sacrifice to fund my education, so I went to Texas A&M University at Galveston (TAMUG).

How did you pursue your career once you were in college?

When I first arrived at TAMUG, I was a marine biology major, and in my freshman year, I took the first introductory biology course. I did not like it at all, but I loved my chemistry course. So I changed my major to marine science and specialized in marine chemistry. My coursework included classes in general chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, marine chemistry, and special projects courses in chemistry.

Every summer of my undergraduate career and during the first two summers of graduate school, I interned at Texas Instruments as an organic chemist. During the school year, as an undergraduate, I worked initially as a computer science tutor and later as an organic chemistry teaching assistant. Working in these positions allowed me to gain various research, science and teaching skills, as well as earn money to pay for the things that weren't covered by my scholarship.

The challenge came when I was finishing my Ph.D. I said, "Here I am about to get a Ph.D. in oceanography. What's next?" One of the things that I enjoyed during graduate school was assisting in the development of other students. I would help them develop their résumés, edit their fellowship applications, and assist them in refining their interviewing skills. I decided that I wanted to be able to obtain a position that would allow me not only to be a scientist, but also to continue doing those types of activities. So the position I'm in now at Georgia Tech—and that's fast-forwarding through a postdoc at Georgia Tech as a geochemist and a year at Savannah State University as an assistant research professor—is as a program coordinator and a research scientist. [Note: Ashanti was at Georgia Tech when this interview was conducted. She is now an Assistant Professor at the University of South Florida.] The program coordinator role allows me to help prepare African American graduate students to succeed in academic faculty positions. My research scientist position allows me to continue my aquatic science research. It's a nice balance for right now. Shortly I will begin looking for an assistant professor position at a university that will allow me to continue both of these types of activities.

What challenges in your career have you faced as a woman and a minority?

For me, as a woman as well as a minority, the challenge has always been feeling like I am representing the entire African American female population. Going into graduate school, there are these expectations that are placed on you, by yourself to some extent, but also by others that you must succeed, because otherwise you are letting this huge population of people down. That can be really stressful. Going into an environment like oceanography where there have traditionally not been as many women, you are faced with that. But as a minority, there is even more of a challenge. I was the first African American to get a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University in oceanography. And from what many people from across the country tell me, I'm the first African American female chemical oceanographer with an oceanography doctoral degree.

You get advice. Some of it's good. Some of it's bad. One person told me to publish under my first initial because my first name sounds too much like an African name. And actually, I did do that. The interesting thing was to then go to a meeting and have somebody read one of my papers or see my poster and then see me. They look at my poster then back at my name tag, at the poster, at my name tag, and then "Yes, Hi. How are you doing?" You have to have a sense of humor about it.

For me, if somebody said we don't expect you to make it, I was going to show them that I could. And that is one of the things that I did. Going into a program, they might have thought that just based on appearances I wouldn't make it. But coming out of it, people have always been impressed and asked if I would consider coming back. I know that if I am able to succeed in those arenas, I'll make it a little easier for the next person coming behind me. That is one of the things I am committed to doing.

What issues do minority students seek your advice about?

Sometimes minority students come to me really upset after having been singled out or treated differently than their non-minority peers. Many minority students experience a sense of isolation and/or unfair treatment at their academic institutions. When responding to situations in which the students have experienced obvious racism, I tell them that they have two options. They can either rise above the experience by succeeding in their academic goals in spite of the racist situation, or they can sink to the same level by responding in an inappropriate or self-destructive manner.

Have you seen any progress for women and minorities?

From 1990 through 1994, I worked as a summer intern polymer chemist at Texas Instruments Central Research Laboratories. Each summer, a group of minority high school students from a program at Wiley College toured the company’s research facilities. During these tours I described my organic chemistry and chemical engineering activities and my marine science interests. While attending the1997 American Society of Limnology and Oceanography meeting in Santa Fe, a female African American undergraduate student came up to me and said, "You probably don't remember me. I visited Texas Instruments one summer when I was in high school. You talked to my group about why you were interested and what you were doing in marine science. I just wanted you to know that I'm a senior marine science major at Hampton University." That experience was so rewarding. I will always remember that moment. That's what I like to see, others coming behind me. So yes, I do see things changing and I am excited!

Are there more African Americans coming into marine science?

Yes there are. Most are in undergraduate programs, but there are some in graduate school. I may have been the only African American female chemical oceanographer, but I know that there is another one coming up, and I'm excited about her. Traditionally in ocean sciences, there have been more African Americans studying the biological and geological aspects of the ocean. There have been fewer in chemical and even fewer in physical oceanography. I'm not sure why that is.

What obstacles do students still face?

It's really not a well publicized field. I remember my third grade teacher telling my class that we should be engineers, doctors, or lawyers. An oceanographer? They didn't have that point of reference. I think now that with the Internet, it's a lot easier to find out about alternative careers. If you get a Ph.D. in oceanography, what do you do? Now there's a web site that talks about careers in oceanography. So if a person is interested in the field, they can actually research the various career possibilities. That makes it better. A person wants to believe that when they finish school, there is some job out there waiting for them. I definitely believe that the Internet, by providing access to this type of information, has helped minimize this particular obstacle.

What inspires you about what you do?

I'm inspired when I remember people like the Hampton University marine science undergraduate student, who first considered a career in ocean sciences after listening to my presentation at Texas Instruments. I was able to sew just a little seed. I like to witness and contribute to people's growth. And that's in all areas, from academic, to professional, to personal. I correspond with a lot of students and colleagues by e-mail. I often find myself volunteering to assist them with various scientific, academic and professional development-related activities. It is rewarding to be given opportunities to assist them in achieving their goals. So I guess it's the successes and achievements of others that serve as my inspiration.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Spare time? What exactly is that? Seriously, I do try to make that happen in my life. When I'm not engaged in research, academics or other professional stuff, I'm really involved in church ministry and family. My husband, Frank, and I are always committed to going on at least one good vacation a year. We've been whitewater rafting in the US and Brazil. We've hiked in several different US mountain ranges as well as in a Brazilian rainforest. We've been snorkeling and jet skiing throughout the US, as well as in Cancun, Hawaii and Bermuda. I've also tried some winter activities including skiing and tubing. You can probably tell that I really enjoy active vacations.

Frank and I both really enjoy being involved in ministry. While we were graduate students at Texas A&M University, Frank and I were youth directors at our home church, Agape Christian Center, in Bryan, Texas. The Agape Christian Center members became our "family away from home." It was truly a pleasure to work with the kids. In Atlanta, Georgia we taught in New Birth Missionary Baptist Church's Intimate Partner's Marriage Ministry, a ministry that is committed to strengthening marriages. Additionally in 2002, I participated in my first summer missionary trip. The purpose of the trip was to minister to youth in Nova Scotia for two weeks. Frank and I are now in a period of transition. We will definitely be active in whatever church we join in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. God and family. Those are definitely two of the most important and rewarding things in my life.

What advice do you have for people who are interested in pursuing a career in science?

Find out as much as you can about the career, and be flexible. My first semester at TAMUG, I absolutely knew I was going to be a marine biology major until I took general biology, and I did not like the class. I liked my chemistry class instead, so I was flexible. I wanted to work with the ocean, so I switched to marine chemistry. I gained valuable experiences through non-traditional types of careers. I interned as a polymer chemist and a chemical engineer even though I was a marine science major. The take home message here is be flexible. By the time I hit graduate school, as a result of my different academic and professional experiences, I was well prepared to succeed. Moving on through my doctoral degree, I experienced a lot of new things, including having opportunities to present my research at professional society meetings, which enabled me to meet people and to develop a network.

And that's the last thing. You really can't do it on your own. You really do need a network and a support system because things do get hard sometimes. When they do, you need people who will help and/or encourage you.

Ashanti Pyrtle

  • Assistant Professor, Aquatic Science
  • University of South Florida

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