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Meet Aliyah Griffith, first Black UNC student to get a marine sciences graduate degree

Aliyah Griffith is the CEO of Mermaids in STEM and the first Black individual to complete a graduate degree in Marine Science at UNC. Photo Courtesy of Aliyah Griffith.

When Aliyah Griffith was 5 years old, she visited Sea World with her family — and her curiosity about aquatic animals only grew from there. 

Griffith continued to visit aquariums and marine parks, and around the age of seven, she approached a dolphin trainer at the Baltimore Aquarium, intrigued to know what her official job title was. 

Griffith found out that the trainer was a marine biologist.

"By age seven or eight, I was running around like, 'I'm going to be a marine biologist,'" she said. "And people were like, 'why do you know what that is?'"

Her interest in the field continued in college, as she majored in marine sciences during her undergraduate years at Hampton University — a historically Black university in Virginia.

This month, Griffith defended her marine sciences master's thesis at UNC. In doing so, she became the first African American student to be accepted and receive a degree from the University's marine science graduate program. The program has been at UNC for over 50 years.

Beyond the University, Griffith has been working to help increase representation for people of color in the marine science field for years.

"Our research and our expertise deserves to be heard," she said.

In 2016, Griffith founded MahoganyMermaids, a nonprofit focused on promoting and uplifting children of color, specifically Black children, in the aquatic sciences. MahoganyMermaids has helped provide aquatic science programs that foster community, mentorship and education.

“More recently, we shifted to more virtual perspectives by trying to offer scholarships, information, showcase funding from other sources and build a virtual community,” Griffith said.

Griffith is also a member of the Initiative for Minority Excellence and Black Graduate and Professional Student Association, organizations at UNC intended to support graduate students through professional development and other opportunities.

"I know of a lot of people doing amazing work and have been able to work or be a part of multiple organizations that are not only looking at it from a Black perspective of marine science, but also just a scientific or research perspective," she said.

While at UNC, Griffith has worked in the Castillo Lab, which focuses on the impact of global change on coral reefs.

Her master’s thesis was about how acute disturbances or hurricanes impacted coral reef growth, specifically in the Florida Keys, where the Castillo Lab had previously done research.

Karl Castillo, an associate professor at UNC in the Department of Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences and principal investigator of the Castillo Lab, said he was proud of Griffith for defending her master’s thesis.

He said working through the ups and downs of situations such as defending a thesis, is what makes someone a good graduate student.

“If you can deal with these tough situations, that no doubt will arise, and if you're able to cope with those and accomplish what your ultimate goal was in the first place, then I think you've succeeded," Castillo said.

Griffith’s current focus is on coral conservation work in Barbados. She hopes her work will shift the methodology to help with coral reef monitoring and assessments.

Griffith has a personal connection to the work, as her family is originally from Barbados.

“Being able to give back to the community in the island that my ancestors are from and be a part of keeping history, as well as helping the future of the island, is something that you feel like you can't really know, unless it's that close to home," she said.

Kathy Wood, the director of diversity and student success within the UNC Graduate School, said Griffith will "thrive wherever she lands."

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“Whenever you speak to her, you can sense her passion in her work,” Wood said.

Griffith is now working toward a doctorate in marine science at UNC.