Expanding the definition of STEM careers through MBARI stories

Deep-sea research and exploration require intense collaboration—from the scientists and researchers who study life in the ocean to the engineers and technicians who build the robots to go where humans cannot. But there are many pathways to a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and some of them may surprise you.

In 2020, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a report on STEM and the American Workforce. The authors began their analysis by establishing a more expansive definition of STEM professionals that included every person who contributed to STEM regardless of educational degree, job title, income, or industry.

This comprehensive definition led to a surprising finding—STEM supports two-thirds of U.S. jobs (67 percent), 69 percent of U.S. GDP, and $2.3 trillion in annual federal tax revenue. Furthermore, only six in 10 STEM professionals hold a bachelor’s degree, despite the overwhelming representation in popular culture that STEM is reserved for those with doctorates or other specialized degrees.

Thanks to David Packard’s vision, MBARI is uniquely positioned to contribute to an expansive definition of STEM careers. Scientists and engineers work together to push the boundaries of advancements for studying the deep ocean, marine operations staff bring those projects to fruition in the challenging conditions of the open sea, and communications staff cultivate a network to share our data, knowledge, and resources with the broader community. The people who come together to realize this vision come from a wide range of cultural, economic, and educational backgrounds, gender identities, abilities, lived experiences, and ways of thinking.

MBARI sits squarely at the intersection where an ongoing institutional commitment to center and amplify diverse voices meets the need for stories that encourage the next generation of problem-solvers to pursue STEM careers.

In April of 2021, the video and editorial teams launched Navigating STEM as a multimedia campaign that features profiles of MBARI staff. The series is especially geared toward those curious, young people who have an interest in STEM subjects, but have not seen stories that resonate with their lived experience.

The name itself provides some insight into the central focus of the profiles. Each person’s current job title and responsibilities are only part of the story. The series takes inspiration from the unpredictable nature of seagoing expeditions to ask how they have navigated the waters that brought them to where they are today—and how they are looking ahead. They are encountering obstacles, asking questions, and maneuvering as they move forward.

This approach to storytelling works to dismantle the persistent mental models that dissuade people from STEM pathways. For example, the traditional “STEM pipeline” suggests that the primary path to success requires an early entry into STEM experiences and multiple advanced degrees—and that those who diverge from that path or take time off will be unable to re-enter the workforce.

Indeed, a 2018 study from Pew Research Center found that 27 percent of Americans interested in STEM chose alternate career paths because of limited access to the time and resources needed to complete post-secondary education or acquire additional skills. Those barriers are even larger for people with systemically marginalized identities.

But Navigating STEM embraces a growing trend to envision STEM career paths as a braided river. The interdisciplinary studies, varied introductions to the ocean, and even failures along the way all contribute to resilience in STEM.

Software Engineer Brian Kieft explains how he does a wide variety of work from coding to field deployments and driving boats—and how building radio kits and exploring the outdoors prepared him for an ocean career. © 2021 MBARI

“Keep pursuing those interests that you have. They’re there for a reason, and maybe that job that you want doesn’t even exist right now.” —MBARI Software Engineer Brian Kieft

MBARI affirmed its commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) in 2021 by inviting speakers with expertise in this arena, organizing a bystander training workshop, a session on mentoring, and curating a JEDI resources page for the MBARI website. A land acknowledgment statement was also developed in partnership with the Amah Mutsun Land Trust.

Careers in STEM fields related to ocean research and exploration present some unique challenges and barriers. The communications team organized a panel discussion on making ocean exploration more accessible at the Metcalf Inclusive SciComm Symposium. The panel gathered a group of speakers—researchers, advocates, educators, and science communicators—who represented a variety of ocean communities and lived experiences. This group covered a wide range of topics within ocean science, from naming species to seabed mining to making ship-based work more inclusive for working parents. The team will follow the discussion with a publication summarizing the key takeaways to share this important topic more widely in the ocean science community.

These events continued conversations at MBARI around understanding and addressing issues of equity and inclusion across the organization. On January 13, 2021, MBARI staff attended a screening of Picture a Scientist—a film exposing the challenges and biases women face in science—followed by a panel discussion with MIT Professor Penny Chisholm, CSUMB Professor Corey Garza, National Academy of Sciences President, and former MBARI CEO Marcia McNutt, Picture A Scientist co-producer and co-director Sharon Shattuck, and ESRI Chief Scientist Dawn Wright.

The viewing and panel discussion prompted deeper conversations about the particular challenges that women in science face. On February 11, 2021, a moderated brown-bag workshop was organized to host a discussion around mentoring at MBARI. The event occurred in conjunction with the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science. In her Navigating STEM episode, MBARI Senior Scientist and Science Chair Kelly Benoit-Bird speaks personally to the role of mentorship as a key factor in her success.

Senior Scientist and Science Chair Kelly Benoit-Bird uses sound to study how animals make a living in the ocean. As the first person in her family to go to college, she navigated the unfamiliar path of becoming a professional scientist. Now, she’s combining technology, biology, and physics to study the ocean from a fish-eye view. © 2021 MBARI

Although Navigating STEM highlights individual stories, an emerging theme is the importance of having a support network that fosters growth and creativity. These are not just people in ocean research and exploration—these are people who are finding community in ocean research and exploration.

Former MBARI AUV Operations Engineer Emery Nolasco talks about how tinkering and robotics led her to a career working with autonomous underwater vehicles to help scientists study the deep sea. © 2021 MBARI

Two new episodes are planned for 2022 to continue to showcase a wide variety of roles at MBARI, a diversity of voices, and the many pathways to finding a career in STEM.

The global ocean faces many threats, including climate change, pollution, overfishing, and an increasing interest in mining the mineral reserves of the deep sea to support renewable energy technology. This year marks the start of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. The UN Decade provides a common framework so that scientists, policy makers, managers, and service users can work together to ensure that ocean science delivers greater benefits for both the ocean ecosystem and society. As we continue to innovate in ocean research, technology, and stewardship, new ways to expand diversity, equity, and inclusion in the ocean sciences are needed to create a more accessible field and broaden engagement with the public.

Fostering inclusion in ocean science requires an evolving process to invite new collaborators, cultivate a supportive community, break down barriers, and honor differences. Perhaps even more important is the process of redefining STEM in a way that more accurately reflects a broad diversity in experience and ways of thinking.

MBARI invites the public to dive behind the scenes on a research expedition

In 2021, MBARI invited the public to dive behind the scenes on a research expedition.