By: Tiffany Whitfield
Old Dominion University alumna, Imani Black has always been drawn to the water and what lies beneath. She works as an oyster farmer and she started Minorities in Aquaculture located on the Eastern Shore. This nonprofit organization aims to educate minority women about the restorative and sustainability benefits of local and global aquaculture, while also promoting a more diverse, inclusive aquaculture industry. Her love for STEM as an African American woman proved challenging, but because of her family legacy and her self-determination she is setting sail on an environmental career.
As a girl growing up on the Eastern Shore she felt deeply connected to the water. "From a young age, I knew I wanted to work in the environmental field but wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do, said Black. "But I understood our responsibility to protect our coastal communities and knew I wanted to be a part of the solution." She comes from a line of watermen from Rock Hall, Crisfield and Cambridge, Maryland that dates back to more than 200 years.
Initially, she was recruited by the ODU's Women's Lacrosse Team, but it was the university's Marine Biology program that really stood out. "I liked that ODU had an interesting Department of Biological Sciences and the variety of courses gave me options to ultimately figure out what I wanted to study," said Black.
Being a student athlete was challenging. "I struggled with anxiety while balancing academics, the student-athlete lifestyle and my personal battle of mismanaged Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)," said Black. She was almost convinced by coaches and staff to change her major, but her mom stepped in. "My mom encouraged me to do what made me happy despite their opinions and to pursue my passion," said Black. "That moment of motherly encouragement would fuel not only my marine biology degree but would be the catalyst for all the things I love and create today."
Black persevered and took a Marine Biology study abroad course in South Water Caye, Belize led by Mark Butler, formerly professor and eminent scholar in Biology. "That course was the first opportunity I had to fully dive into the world of research, academia and graduate coursework," said Black. "It was the first time I traveled out of the country, lived on a research island, and spent hours exploring mangroves and patch reefs for schoolwork."
The opportunity to run experiments on sea urchins, and fully delve into field work broadened Black's horizons. "It was definitely one of my favorite memories from ODU not only because of how much I learned, but the friendships that I still have from that trip," said Black.
Following that summer, "I took a Marine Ecology Lab course with Dr. Butler and continued to learn various skills in the field, lab and classroom that would later on help me in my career of shellfish aquaculture," said Black. She started her journey into oyster restoration and shellfish aquaculture through an internship at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's VA Oyster Restoration Team . Aquaculture involves the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of aquatic organisms in a controlled environment.
Black received her Bachelor of Science in Biology from ODU in 2016, and upon graduation she poured her time and energy into aquaculture. After graduation, she was selected to participate in the Virginia Institute of Marine Science Aquaculture Genetics & Breeding Technology Center's Oyster Aquaculture Training program which targets those pursuing careers in all aspects of oyster aquaculture, from hatchery operations to grow-out and processing.
She honed her craft and worked for oyster companies in Virginia and Maryland and worked at the first privately-owned hatchery in Maryland as a lead hatchery technician and assistant manager. Currently, she works at the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science's (UMCES) Horn Point Laboratory (HPL) as a Faculty Research Assistant. She wanted to get more minorities into aquaculture, which led her to start Minorities in Aquaculture.
"Over time, even my strong passion would be challenged by the racial stereotypes and microaggressions that I felt while pursuing an environmental career," said Black. As a minority working in STEM, she has faced multiple challenges but has overcome so much more.
Coming from a family of watermen and relying on her skillset and natural affinity to aquaculture, Imani Black is carving out a career in environmental science. Her advice to current Monarchs is the "educate yourself outside of class about your future and then actively use the resources around you to further prepare you."