A young black woman stands knee-deep in the salt marsh, leaning forward, focused, staring at a container she is holding in her hands. She is so focused that she doesn’t notice the white couple walking along a path along the estuary.
However, they notice her.
The couple starts screaming. “Hey what are you doing? We’re calling the cops!”
The young woman in the swamp is Dr. Tiara Moore, who collects samples to analyze for environmental DNA (or eDNA), to detect what species were present and how they were affected by threats such as algal blooms.
Moore, who was no stranger to this situation, calmly explained her research, her career as a marine biologist, and exactly why she stood in a swamp with small containers. The hopefully chastised couple struck up a conversation. They took the photo of Moore in the field that animates this blog.
Using eDNA to assess biodiversity has been an important part of Moore’s career, taking him from marine environments to the forest of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a fascinating science that can help shape conservation action. But that story can’t be separated from another part either: that of Moore feeling unwanted, of being the only black person in the room, of facing the barriers of systemic racism.
From the ocean to the forest
Moore began her college career with the intention of becoming a pediatrician, a story she tells in a excellent series of interviews with Washington Nature. An enrollment in a course in tropical biology changed this trajectory. She admits she took it mainly for the class trip to Costa Rica. There, collecting water samples, it became clear what she wanted to do with her professional life.
Thanks to his Masters and Ph.D. work, she continued to collect these samples. That’s when she started her doctorate. work in 2015 that she saw the potential of eDNA surveillance. “I was really in that first group of scientists trained in using eDNA at UCLA,” Moore says. “I immediately saw its potential as an innovative tool for monitoring biodiversity.
eDNA is, quite simply, the DNA left behind by an organism in the environment. “Everyone loves crime shows,” Moore says. “In these shows, detectives might take a sample from where a criminal touched a door. They’re looking for the criminal’s DNA. Animals also leave behind DNA.
It can be in feces, hair, shedding skin, pollen. “Animals leave these traces behind, and all of that contains DNA,” Moore says. “You can capture that through soil samples and even capture it in air. You take that sample and then you analyze it for genetic codes. You run those codes into a database, matching your samples to species.
Traditionally, monitoring wildlife of any kind – whether large mammals, fish or insects – required some form of observation. You can transect for creatures, set traps, or search for droppings. It could be a long and laborious process, and you just might miss an elusive or small or rare creature. Microbes and fungi might never be considered at all.
Moore saw the potential for eDNA in the marine environment she considered her professional home. By taking water and sediment samples, she was able to monitor the presence and absence of the diverse marine life found in the study area. She was specifically monitoring nutrient pollution and associated algal blooms in Southern California, using eDNA to identify the bacteria responsible for algal decay and water quality impacts.
While attending a marine science conference, she struck up a conversation with Dr. Phil Levin, Senior Scientist for The Nature Conservancy in Washington. As she described her work with estuarine sediments, Levin wondered aloud: Could she bring eDNA to a forest in Washington?
And so Moore, a marine scientist, brought her DNA work to the Ellsworth Creek Reservation in western Washington.
See the forest for eDNA
Ellsworth Creek Preserve has been a bold curatorial experiment since 2000, when the Conservancy purchased the entire 7,600-acre watershed of Ellsworth Creek. Over 4,000 acres of the acquired property had been worked, so it was not a virgin reserve. This marked a bit of a departure from conservation, as the Conservancy often specialized in purchasing small reserves to protect existing biodiversity.
The ongoing restoration effort has tested a variety of treatments, including allowing the forest to regrow without intervention and more active approaches, including selective thinning and prescribed fire. The forest has reclaimed areas that were once logging roads and clearcuts. But how did biodiversity benefit? Which treatments work best.
Enter Moore’s eDNA work. “I don’t have to spend hours in the field with binoculars or camera traps,” says Moore. “Even if I did that, I would only see the passing animals.”
By collecting eDNA samples, she found evidence of over 800 species at Ellsworth Creek Preserve. Many of them were microbes or fungi, but she also found evidence of creatures as large as wolves. (She often likes to state, with a laugh, that there was no evidence of Bigfoot).
“You get a big picture from a little ball of dirt,” she says.
She was looking for the presence and absence of species, evaluating them against forest management treatments and other factors. The team recorded the environmental conditions where the samples were taken, including tree measurements, soil type and hill slope.
“We were looking for what are the drivers of the presence and absence of biodiversity,” says Moore. “Then staff can use it to inform management practices. This can shape future restoration efforts to focus on activities that could contribute the most to biodiversity.
“You can be in this space”
In our conversation, Moore expresses his joy that his work on eDNA can shape effective forest conservation. “I looked to see if it could work in a completely different ecosystem,” she says.
And she was thrilled to learn about the stories told in these soil samples and how they can continue to shape the story of conservation at Ellsworth Creek. But she also admits to having felt another attraction.
“When I moved to do a postdoc in the forest, I knew I had to find my way back to marine science,” she says.
And she wanted something else: to help other black marine scientists find their way.
Throughout her career, Moore often found herself the only black person in the room, whether in a university lab, a professional conference, or a large conservation organization. She often felt unwelcome.
Boarding a dive boat, other researchers asked her if she could swim. People were asking if she was there to carry the scuba tanks.
She is also aware of historical trauma. She notes surveys that found less than half of black people in America can swim, a legacy of a time when going to the pool could be dangerous. Many public swimming pools, especially in the southern United States, were prohibited. Whites sometimes dumped acid in black-designated pools, making swimming always a risk. This trauma in turn fuels stereotypes that black people can’t swim, that they can’t be marine scientists.
And even collecting samples for his eDNA work can lead to people threatening to call the police.
She tells me that even in seemingly well-meaning organizations, bias and systemic racism come into play. There are the messages of diversity and the trainings, but still a resistance to real change. “I often feel symbolized and not valued for my work,” she says.
She wondered: where are the other black marine scientists? This brought her to social media, modeling a Black in Marine Science campaign after the popular Black Birders Week. She was not alone. But she found many others, like her, who felt alone in this professional space.
This led her to start a non-profit organization called Black in Marine Science. Managing this organization became his full-time job with the Conservancy. This spring, she became the organization’s first CEO.
“I want black marine scientists to know that you can be in this space,” Moore says. “We can share our experiences, discuss obstacles and hold each other accountable. We can talk about how to treat our hair during dives.
Moore’s goals include a research facility, called the BIMS Institute, located in a predominantly black community, with research focused on this area to see the impacts of water quality and climate change. She will continue to use eDNA and she will continue to inspire the next generation of marine scientists. “I found my way back to marine science,” she says. “And I found a community of other people who shared my life experiences. It keeps me going. It keeps We going.”