Peyton Thomas Highlights Her Most Influential Black Scientists


This week, POW Athlete Alliance member, Peyton Thomas, a Patagonia trail running ambassador and Ph.D. candidate, joined POW Science Alliance member and research assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire, Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski, to talk about Black representation and influences in science. This article expands on some of the individuals Peyton and Elizabeth referenced during the conversation, diving deep into the backgrounds of prominent Black scientists who have influenced them. 

Thomas and Burakowski touched on topics including the intersectionality of climate change and environmental racism, personal experiences pertaining to the two and Black scientists who have been instrumental not only in their own careers but in advancing progress on climate change, ocean conservation and environmental justice. As Burakowski noted during the discussion, scientific accolades have historically been put upon white men, which underscores just how important representation is across all industries and disciplines.

Peyton Thomas

POW Athlete Alliance member Peyton Thomas truly embodies the way that science and exploration of the outdoors intertwine. Not only is she an endurance runner and Patagonia trail running ambassador but she is also pursuing her Ph.D. in marine biology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Her research revolves around the effects of temperature and oxygen availability conditions on several marine species, including the Epaulette shark (which can forage out of water for extended periods!) and the little skate. 

Thomas aspires to blend her love for nature with environmental and climate advocacy and running. As a burgeoning role model in the realm of climate, she notes that the first step in confronting not only climate change and environmental racism, but the intersectionality of the two, is to talk about it, and ignorance of these issues works against their solutions. She wants people to know that there are myriad ways to get involved in climate action and there’s no science prerequisite required to do so. She acknowledged Citizen Science as an outlet to get involved and engage in outdoor sports while also contributing observations about the environment while doing so. In her home of Wilmington, it’s as easy as going out for a paddle looking for turtles or other wildlife and making observations. Thomas also encourages people to follow scientists of color via social media, citing accounts like Black AF in STEM (@BlackAFinSTEM), Black Women In Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Science (@BWEEMS) and Minorities in Shark Sciences (@miss_elasmo).

Ayana Johnson

Thomas wasn’t shy in heaping praise upon Ayana Johnson for her ability to bring people together, connect them to proper resources and make climate issues accessible to the masses through her podcast, How To Save a Planet. Dr. Burakowski uses Johnson’s Ted Talks in her own courses at the University of New Hampshire.

Johnson received her Bachelor of Arts degree in environmental science and public policy from Harvard University and went on to earn a Ph.D. in marine biology from the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. 

Johnson’s research intertwines the topics of ocean conservation, sustainable fishing, ocean zoning, climate change and social justice. Her consulting firm, Ocean Collectiv, is designed to advance ocean sustainability and conservation solutions grounded in social justice. In 2017, Johnson co-directed the March for Science, the largest coalition of scientists in history, and helped launched the Blue Halo Initiative, a marine conservation nonprofit working on sustainable policies with governments in locations like the Caribbean, while working as executive director of the Waitt Institute.  

Johnson has authored several articles outlining the intersectionality of climate change and social justice issues, including We Can’t Solve the Climate Crisis Unless Black Lives Matter in Time and I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet. in the Washington Post. 

While many think of the land when pondering climate advocacy, ocean conservation bears striking similarities to protecting forest, mountain and desert landscapes, and it comes down to people and their interactions with these natural playgrounds. In a 2017 feature profile from Outside, Johnson noted that “ocean conservation is not about fish; it’s about people. People are the ones that alter nature, so a lot of the work is about changing human behavior and building political will.” Sound familiar? POW’s Theory of Change cites both a cultural shift in how humans treat climate change and political will as two factors that will be instrumental in achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. 

She goes on to note that the biggest impetus for conservation and climate action, specifically in coastal communities, has to do with people’s relationships with the land and water around them. “To do work that resonates in each place, we should keep in mind that different cultures and communities have different relationships with the sea. If a family can’t have a fish fry, if people can’t go fishing, diving or swimming in the ocean, then we lose a lot of valuable interactions and culture.”

Dr. Warren Washington

Dr. Warren Washington, an official member of the Outdoor State.

Photo: Courtesy of NCAR / Warren Washington

Dr. Burakowski noted her admiration for Dr. Warren Washington, calling him the “father of climate modeling.” After earning his Bachelor’s degree in physics and Master’s in meteorology from Oregon State, Washington secured a doctoral degree in meteorology from Pennsylvania State University, becoming only the second Black scientist to earn a doctorate in atmospheric science. He’s currently a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, where he’s worked since 1963. 

Washington’s longevity in the world of climate science is fairly unmatched, and he’s been internationally recognized for his specialization in computer modeling of the Earth’s climate. His contributions to groundbreaking atmospheric computer models, which use the laws of physics to predict future states of the atmosphere, have been instrumental in helping scientists understand global climate change. His contributions to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment helped earn NCAR scientists and other global scientists the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Over the course of his career, Washington has published over 200 academic papers in professional journals, earned countless awards and even served as science advisor to Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Talk about a hell of a resume, eh? Dr. Burakowski’s description of Washington as the “father of climate modeling” isn’t an exaggeration at all. 

Perhaps even more significantly, Washington has welcomed his role as a mentor to younger generations of scientists, and won the Dr. Charles Anderson Award from the American Meteorological Society “for pioneering efforts as a mentor and passionate support of individuals, educational programs and outreach initiatives designed to foster a diverse population of atmospheric scientists.” 

Dr. Marshall Shepherd

Dr. Burakowski gushed about Dr. Marshall Shepherd’s competencies as a science communicator and his ability to take complex climate topics and make them accessible for all. 

Dr. Shepherd is an internationally renowned expert in weather and climate science, currently serving as the Distinguished Professor of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Georgia and the chair of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Earth Sciences Advisory Committee. Shepherd’s list of awards and accolades is longer than Utah’s Hole-in-the-Rock road (if you know, you know), notably earning the American Meteorological Society’s Helmut Landsberg Award for pioneering and significant work in urban climate as well as the Protector of the Earth designation from Ted Turner’s Captain Planet Foundation. 

His Tedx Talk titled, “Slaying the ‘zombies’ of climate science,” has earned widespread praise, and Shepherd is frequently sought after by NASA, the White House, Congress, the Department of Defense and foreign countries for advice. 

Hearkening back to Dr. Burakowski’s note about his ability to make climate science more accessible to everyday people, Shepherd made an astute analogy to explain the differences between weather and climate. For reference, a common argument from climate deniers is, “There’s a blizzard outside right now, how can climate change exist?” As part of the 97 Hours of Consensus project in 2014, Shepherd explained, “Weather is your mood and climate is your personality. So on any given day, you can have really cold weather or really violent weather. But the scientific literature does suggest that our climate is changing. Almost every weather phenomenon happens in a warmer and more moist climate.”

Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali

Photo: Joshua Franzos

Dr. Murakowski cited strategist, policymaker and environmental advocate, Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, highlighting his testimony before the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in 2019. In his testimony, Ali examined how the fossil fuel industry had known about the impacts of their industry on our planet and the health of our most vulnerable communities for decades, and embarked on misinformation campaigns to deny those impacts, discredit the value of renewable energy and refute the very existence of human-caused climate change. 

Mustafa deserves to be a first-ballot Environmental Justice Hall of Famer. For 24 years, Ali worked at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), serving as the assistant associate administrator for environmental justice and senior advisor for environmental justice and community revitalization. He was a founding member of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), where he served as director of communications, and his Environmental Justice in Action Blog has cultivated over 100,000 followers. His work has strengthened environmental justice policies, programs and initiatives across numerous federal agencies.

Dr. Robert Bullard

Photo: Dr. Robert Bullard

Peyton Thomas cited Dr. Robert Bullard, “The Father of Environmental Justice,” when discussing the intersectionality of climate change and environmental justice. Bullard stated that “America is segregated and so is pollution. Race and class still matter and map closely with pollution, unequal protection and vulnerability.” In short, a history of systemic racism has contributed to putting vulnerable populations, most frequently Black, Indigenous and People of Color, at the highest risk for detrimental health effects stemming from climate change. 

Bullard currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University and is the author of eighteen books focusing on sustainable development, environmental racism, urban land use, climate justice, regional equity climate disasters and more. In fact, his book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality, is a standard text in the field of environmental justice. 

Over his career, Bullard has racked up awards like Chloe Kim racks up X Games and Olympic gold medals. Just a few include the Conservation Achievement Award in Science from the National Wildlife Federation, the Champions of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award from the United Nations Environment Program and the Environmental Justice Award from Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste. Hell, the Sierra Club named its Robert Bullard Environmental Justice Award after him.  

For young advocates hoping to pursue a career in environmental justice, Bullard is the gold standard when it comes to role models.

Danni Washington

Peyton Thomas’ admiration for Danni Washington was palpable and she credited her work of bringing younger people of color into the realm of science, especially through her Big Blue & You organization, which works to educate youth about ocean conservation. 

Washington is a science communicator originally from Miami, Florida, who earned her bachelor’s degree in Marine Science and Biology from the University of Miami in 2008. She has worked as a naturalist at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center, where she educated thousands of children in the South Florida area about their local marine ecosystems and co-founded the Sea Youth Rise Up initiative, which seeks to elevate the role of youth leadership in ocean conservation policy and advocacy. Washington is leading the charge in terms of inspiring younger generations to advocate for the health and well-being of the world’s oceans, and through her countless TV shows, videos and additional media, she’s made wonky science communications incredibly accessible.

Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe

Berhe is a true pioneer for women of color in the science community. After growing up in Asmara, Eritrea, Africa, Asmeret was one of three women in a 55-person class in the soil science department at the University of Asmara, where she’d go on to earn her Bachelors of Science in Soil and Water Conservation. Berhe earned her Masters in Political Ecology at Michigan State University, where her studies emphasized the effects of land degradation, and she worked to understand how detonated landmines could cause land degradation. Ever wonder if those charges and munitions used by forecasters and ski patrollers for avalanche mitigation have an effect on our mountainsides? We’re sure Dr. Berhe could provide significant insight into that topic. 

Berhe earned her Ph.D. in Biogeochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, where she explored how erosion affected the emissions of carbon from the land into the air. Fun discovery: Berhe found that erosion can cause the soil to store more carbon.

Currently, Berhe is a professor of soil biogeochemistry and the Ted and Jan Falasco Chair in Earth Sciences and Geology at the University of California, Merced. Her research focuses on how environmental conditions like fire, erosion and climate change affect soil processes. Of particular interest to the Outdoor State, Berhe’s current research centers around how drought and wildlife affect soil’s ability to store carbon, and Berhe frequents places like Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada Range during her fieldwork. 

In addition to her own research and accolades, Berhe is the co-Principal Investigator of ADVANCEGeo, a firm working towards increasing the retention of female geoscientists in that particular field. Berhe is also an advisory board member for 500 Women Scientists, an organization working to make science open, inclusive and accessible, and she’s on the leadership board of the Earth Science Women’s Network. Berhe is the co-author of Ten simple rules for building an antiracist lab, a guide meant for labs to help cultivate antiracist policies to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in science.