Shark Guardian’s Women in Science Interview with Carlee Jackson
It was Carlee’s Tweet about #BlackInNature which got the ball rolling for MISS to be founded back in 2020!. She has studied nurse sharks in Belize and was part of NSU’s shark tagging program. Her other marine passion is sea turtles and she is assisting the Disney Conservation team as a sea turtle research associate. Carlee is one of the co-founders of MISS and is their Director of Communications.
Q1. Can you tell us about the path that led to your current job role and Did you always want to be a marine biologist growing up?
The shark obsession started early for Carlee as a shark book caught her eye at 5 years old! She realized that they were misunderstood creatures and knew from that moment on that she wanted to work with them. While studying Biology in college she got the chance to take part in a study program which immersed her in field work and loved it, deciding then that her future had to involve field work!
I always tell people that sea turtles pay the bills, and sharks are my real passion! The path that led me to MISS was the built-up frustration of being the only Black woman in my classes, on boats, and in marine science programs. Before beginning MISS I’d been thinking of how I could get more people that look like me into marine biology. When I met Jasmin, Jaida and Amani, I finally met women in this field I could relate to and had the chance and drive to make a difference!
Q2. What was one of the best experiences you had that was directly due to your career?
Any experience that involves a live shark is the best! My master’s research in Belize (studying the effects of feeding tourism on nurse sharks) was probably one of my favorite experiences because I was in the water with nurse sharks pretty much every day.
Q3. Tell us about some of the experiences you’ve had with sharks?
Going back to my master’s research: I got to spend two months on a tiny island in Belize studying nurse sharks. I conducted an in-water behavioral study so I was able to swim with nurse sharks nearly every day! It was so much fun and thinking back I can’t believe I got to do that for a project. There was a small juvenile nurse shark that frequented the area, and I named him Carl. I could tell him apart from the others because of a half moon shaped cut in his dorsal fin. One day while at my study site, a great hammerhead shark decided to grace us with her presence! At the time that was the largest shark I’d ever been in the water with and it is probably one of my favorite moments in the water with sharks.
I also have to talk about my first time tagging a shark. Was probably the best day of my life at the time! It was a lemon shark, and the first thing I said when we pulled it up was that it was so cute!
Q4. We have to ask; do you have a favorite shark?
My favorite shark is the nurse shark! They are such underrated sharks but I think they are so cute and so awesome!
Q5. Do you have a role model you’d like to share with us?
My role model is Dr. Catherine Macdonald. She was the first woman I met who was head of a shark research program. She spoke so much life into me and my goals when I first met her that I decided I wanted to be like her when I grew up! She was on my thesis committee as well and is a mentor and friend I cherish my relationship with. She’s a badass!
Q6. Have you had any unexpected experiences thanks to your career path?
Yes, so many so far! The most unexpected thing that’s happened was being on a National Geographic Sharkfest show called Shark Attack Files! I remember getting the email asking if I’d be interested in the show, and that I was recommended because I studied nurse sharks and tourism (the main plot of the show). Later that year I travelled with a production crew to the Bahamas and was able to do some amazing things and visit islands I’d never been to before. We filmed at the Bimini Shark Lab, a place I’d been wanting to go since I was in undergrad. Basically, every young budding shark scientist’s dream! There I was able to swim with great hammerhead sharks for the first time. And these were some BIG sharks, the biggest I’ve ever been in the water with! It was a surreal experience, and one of the greatest moments I’d ever experienced. This trip is also where I tagged my first bull shark and saw her little shark pups through ultrasound! The entire experience from shooting the show, and then later seeing myself on TV and achieving my dream was epic. I even was able to go to Los Angeles for the Sharkfest premiere!
Carlee also got to meet Sylvia Earle on Zoom and spoke about her research and MISS.
Q7. Do you have any advice for other women who are dabbling with the idea of a career in science?
One of my favorite things to say is to follow your passion and don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do. Science is a field that can get very discouraging, but always remember that you dictate what you can or can’t do!
Also, don’t be afraid to try different things! If you’re not sure what type of science field you want to go in to, do some research and look for opportunities to try different things. Volunteer in labs, read about different subjects, just to see what you might be interested in and to develop different skill sets!
Q8. Do you think under-representation was a stumbling block for yourself or others entering the field of science?
Definitely. It was such a burden thinking and feeling like I was the only Black person in shark science, and I’m sure there are others who feel the same. At times I was very discouraged and felt very alone.
Q9. What are the biggest challenges facing girls and women of colour within science and research?
Within science I’d say one of the biggest challenges for women of color is actually staying in your field. Retention is an issue because systems in place are not for us, but very much against us.
Q10. Would you be comfortable recalling any experiences of blatant sexism or racism in the workplace?
One day I was routinely picking up a donation box of fresh veggies for our sea turtles from a store that donated their scraps to us. As I’m loading the box into my vehicle, I hadn’t noticed the security guard that had followed me to my car. He begins to question me on what I was doing and why I hadn’t paid for this random box of veggies. I explained to him what it was for, but he didn’t believe me. I tell him to go talk to one of his superiors and they’ll fill him in, but I wasn’t going to stick around and explain myself to him! Especially since I was in my official work shirt and driving a company vehicle. I remember feeling awful afterwards, knowing that I had been racially profiled and accused of stealing. Being the only Black sea turtle specialist on the team, that wasn’t the first nor only instance of racism I’d experienced. So, it really was a sucky feeling.
Q11. Have you had the privilege of working with many other women scientists in your field?
Yes! When I first entered this field I didn’t know that I’d be working with many women due to lack of representation of women. Now I work mostly with women scientists and I love it.
We hope that you found Carlee’s interview inspiring and insightful. Check out her:
Don’t forget that we have Instagram live chats coming up – Carlee’s live chat will be with Jasmin on February 26th at 7:30pm EST (February 27th 7:30am Thailand time). You will be able to send in your questions for Carlee and Jasmin via the usual channels and we will ask them for you!
The next interview with the MISS team will be Jaida’s, which will be out on March 7th.