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Celebrating Black History Month Part Three: Bryce Corbett, Coral Research Technician

What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you see people who looked like you working in your desired field? For many young people, like Shedd’s Coral Research Technician Bryce Corbett, seeing someone who shared their looks, their language or their culture while working in their dream job was nonexistent.

According to the National Science Foundation, Black women make up about 6.5% of the United States’ population but only 2% of the STEM workforce. Now, Bryce is working to be the role model for Black and minority youth that she never saw.

In this final story of a three-part series to commemorate Black History Month, we asked Bryce about her career path, her role as a Black woman in STEM and becoming an example for youth of what is possible for their futures.

Reasearcher Bryce Corbett grins as she works on a digital device for coral research.

Bryce troubleshoots coral research tools on Shedd's research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II.

“Experiences can unlock potential.”

Bryce Corbett

Shedd: What do you do at Shedd and what is a typical day like?

Bryce: I’m a coral research technician, and I’ve worked at Shedd for about two years. No day is the same, and that’s what I love about it. Our team is researching heat-tolerance in coral species to combat climate change, so I assist with that work.

I spend time in the lab taking DNA extractions from corals or other data collection like measuring weights of coral fragments. Then, I take that raw data and input it into a computer program. I also code and am learning R code to analyze our findings. We ask questions like, “Did all the samples work the way we expected them to? Why or why not?” I explain my methods in code so other people can understand the decisions made in the process.

I also have worked with teens and youth in several programs like the After School Matters internship and presented to groups of teens from organizations like My Block My Hood My City.

Shedd: Can you walk me through your schooling and career path?

Bryce: My sophomore year of high school at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, I participated in a high school marine biology program at Shedd that was transformative for me.

After high school, I did my undergrad at Southern Illinois University with a major in zoology and a double-minor in computer science and chemistry. My junior year I got my first chance to work in a research lab analyzing water samples to understand populations of animals in the water column.

Everything went according to plan until I applied to graduate school and didn’t get into the program I wanted. Even though it didn’t make sense to me at the time, the lack of getting that opportunity was part of the journey.

After graduation, I worked on the Nautilus expedition vessel to explore the deep sea. I engaged with scientists, photographers, videographers and other experts in their field from all different backgrounds and had good conversations with them about how to gear my experiences for my future goals.

Next, I got a job as a fisheries observer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and worked in Alaska for two years. I loved collecting data, but in my next role I wanted to see how data was being used.

I genuinely missed learning, so I applied to grad school again and started at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and I’m planning to graduate this year. My project has been to study temperate coral’s response to hypoxia, or low levels of oxygen.

Then, I was so excited when the job at Shedd came available.

Bryce Corbett dives for coral research in Florida.

Bryce dives on a coral research trip.

Researcher Bryce Corbett checks on coral fragments on Shedd's research vessel in Florida.

Bryce works with coral during heat-resistance research on Shedd's research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II.

Shedd: Did you always know you wanted to be a coral researcher or to be a scientist?

Bryce: I knew I wanted to be in science pretty early on. I’ve always loved cats and dogs, then I got really into bugs and wanted to be an entomologist. But when I joined the high school marine biology program at Shedd is when it really clicked in my brain.

It was a three-week program where we did research on aquatic ecosystems in Chicago and then traveled to The Bahamas to do fish surveys.

On one snorkel excursion near Turtle Rock Bimini, I saw a southern stingray swimming an arm’s length away from me. I looked into its caramel-colored eyes, I was so entranced, and I said, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” I Google-searched “how to become a marine biologist” and went from there.

Choosing my degrees, my schools, racking up experiences and good grades was all strategic. I entered with the mindset like “make it hard for them to say no to you.”

Shedd: Why coral?

Bryce: When snorkeling on the high school marine biology trip, I remember seeing what I thought at the time were “impressive rocks” underwater. The corals were so visually stunning. I never heard much about corals growing up, but once I learned about them, I liked the fact that they are so integral to the ecosystems they reside in. Corals are nerveless, boneless and made up of tiny microorganisms which I thought was cool and interesting.

Bridget Coughlin, Bryce Corbett and Sylvia Earle discuss Hope Spots at Shedd's Immersion event.

Bryce sits on a panel with Shedd's CEO Bridget Coughlin (left) and Oceanographer Sylvia Earle (right) during Immersion 2022.

A group of students and Shedd staff surround Bryce Corbett as they smile for a photo.

Bryce celebrates after the Immersion event with teens from the After School Matters Program and staff..

Shedd: Can you talk more about the work you’ve done with teens?

Bryce: I helped lead teens in an internship program called After School Matters. We built machines called Coral Bleaching Automated Stress Systems (CBASS), which are portable, experimental tools that our team used in the field to identify heat tolerant coral genotypes.

In that process, I taught them the basics of circuitry and programming with Arduino, as well as coral ecology. It was really fun combining education and outreach.

Shedd: How do you feel as a Black woman in science to work with youth of color?

Bryce: It is a super rewarding experience. I didn’t know of any Black marine scientists growing up. It’s both exciting and daunting to be in the position now to be a role model.

A scientist holds up a grid of plastic on which grow stubby ''fingers' of coral. Others are submerged in a cooler filled with water.

Coral fragments in the CBASS machine.

Several 'fingers' of coral grow on a plastic grid held in a gloved hand.

Coral fragments in the CBASS machine.

Shedd: What has been your experience to be a Black woman coral researcher? 

Bryce: It’s weird not seeing people that look like me. It’s never going to feel normal to be the only one, but I feel like we’re on the cusp of seeing that overturn. With diversity in people we get diversity in thought, so I’m excited to see a push in that direction.

Shedd: Why is it important for organizations like My Block My Hood My City to expose their youth to coral research, conservation, science, etc. at such a young age?  

Bryce: Having exposure to as many things as possible that they wouldn’t find at home and stepping out of their comfort zone to experience something totally different is so important. Experiences can unlock potential.

The fact that a group of teens came to Shedd to learn about coral and joined a Kayak for Conservation trip are all important to determining what they want to do in the future and to learn about themselves as people. Coral is in danger, and as many people who care will benefit both coral and us all in the long run.

A group of researchers mug for a selfie on a research boat in Florida.

Bryce poses with members from Shedd's marine conservation research team.

Two Shedd researchers work on a device for coral research.

Bryce troubleshooting the CBASS machine with coral biologist Ross Cunning, Ph.D.

Shedd: Do you have any advice to inspire youth, especially youth of color, that want to go into this field?

Bryce: There’s a lot of pressure to know exactly what you want to do to make money or have a job. There needs to be more emphasis on learning how to love yourself and communicate well with people that love you. The more you love yourself, the more you can extend that to others around you.

Likability and genuine connection with other people are things you’ll need in the professional world. People will want to be around you and see you succeed.