July feature: Dr. Tiara Moore!
We are so happy and fortunate to interview Dr. Tiara Moore about her path to environmental science throughout her academic career. Be sure to check out the links at the bottom of this post to learn more about Dr. Moore's work with A WOC Space and how to connect with her on social media!
(Interview originally conducted May 12, 2020 by Sidney Woodruff)
MUSE: Hey Dr. Moore, thanks for being willing to be interviewed and featured on the M.U.S.E. website. These are strange times, so I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me. To start off, tell us a little bit about yourself!
Dr. Tiara Moore: Hey! My name is Dr. Tiara Nydia Moore, and I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Nature Conservancy in Washington as an environmental ecologist. I am a black woman and use pronouns she/her.
MUSE: Excellent. Tell us about your work. What does the research focus on?
Dr. Tiara Moore: I work in a restored, old-growth forest, and decades ago, this forest was clear-cut. The Nature Conservancy then purchased this forest in order to restore it and conserve land. They’ve been planting trees and restoring the ecosystem. Basically, the whole purpose of restoration is to reestablish the wildlife community. How they’ve been doing that is have foresters go out and do surveys to monitor what’s happening in the ecosystem, but that’s very time-consuming and it’s not as accurate as you would like.
That’s where I come in. I go out and collect soil samples in this forest, extract the DNA from the samples, and that’s known as environmental DNA (eDNA). With eDNA, it can be soil, water, or air where DNA resides and is shed off from living organisms so a feather can drop, or skin cells or fur, and we capture that DNA in the soil. I take those soil samples back to the lab, extract the DNA, take it through a series of steps, and then we send it off to be sequenced. That’s how we’ll know the biodiversity of the ecosystem. Then we are able to map the results and put that on top of our management practices because there are a variety of forest treatments they are doing. We can see, “It has more species richness here in this treatment area versus here.” They would not have been able to see that variation with the current way we think about forestry and management.
MUSE: Nice! I’ve done a little bit of environmental DNA work myself, so I always appreciate hearing about the applications of eDNA in research. Did you always want to have a career like this?
Dr. Tiara Moore: It’s a funny because I originally went into undergrad doing a biology PreMed route because I wanted to be a pediatrician. I realized quite quickly that maybe I didn’t like kids. I was in my senior year, and I thought to myself, “Okay, I’m not going to take the MCAT, so I guess I’m going to go back home and work at Kmart.” Right around that time, I came across this random tropical ecology class, and I decided to take it because they went to Costa Rica for spring break. I’m like, “Oop, free trip, okay!” but then I got there and I’m on a boat, collecting water samples, realizing that you can be a scientist and get paid to do all of this. So, I went from being about to graduate in a couple months with a Biology PreMed degree to realizing I didn’t want to do the medical route anymore after school, so I decided to look at graduate schools with environmental and marine science programs.
MUSE: Wow! That’s a big jump. How was that transition? How did graduate school bring you to where you are today?
Dr. Tiara Moore: Based on general timelines for graduate school applications, I was technically applying late to graduate school since I was applying in May for a Fall start. Hampton University, a nearby Historically Black College and University (HBCU), accepted graduate applications much later into the summer so I decided to apply there. I was an okay student in undergrad. My undergraduate GPA wasn’t the best, but I was able to explain it in my personal statement to them by showing that my grades weren’t the best in my premed classes because I wasn’t interested in them, but once I took the marine and environmental sciences classes, my grades went up. Anyway, I went on their website and found my master’s advisor, Benjamin Cuker, who is one of the best allies I’ve ever witnessed. Under his guidance, I got interested in eutrophication and nutrient pollution, and I ended up doing a project on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.
Hampton University didn’t offer Ph.Ds. so instead, my advisor had a bridge program where if you applied to one of these four schools in Virginia, where Hampton was, you could get your funding. Honestly, now that I know better, I should have looked elsewhere because I didn’t know or understand that if you go to school for a PhD somewhere, you will find funding through fellowships, teaching, etc. I thought I would have to go through this bridge program to one of these four schools because of their funding situation, even though your PhD will be paid for anyway elsewhere. Well, then I get to this Old Dominion University (a part of the bridge program), and it was just horrible. I had a fully paid stipend and everything, but they still made me teach, which I was not supposed to be doing. I also was graded unfairly for my core classes, which they gave me a red flag for one of them, which meant I had to be reviewed by my advisor to continue in the program. I feel like I can still see him sitting there in his chair, looking at me, saying “Umm, yeah, I don’t want to set that type of precedent.” So literally on December 24th, Christmas Eve, they sent me a letter dismissing me from the program.
MUSE: Sheesh! I think it’s important to share those experiences because higher education isn’t always fine and dandy. What happened next?
Dr. Tiara Moore: A friend of mine that I met during a scientific scuba diving certification course was at UCLA and her advisor advocated for me to apply to UCLA. I applied late, but still qualified for the scholarship. I was accepted there, but pretty much had to start completely over because it was not an oceanography program anymore even though I had already completed a year and a half of coursework at Old Dominion. It was all such a disappointing process, to have to continually pick myself up again, but I am definitely self-motivated, which allowed me to get to where I am today.
MUSE: Congrats to that, though you should not have had to experience all of those mishaps! That is exactly why we need people there to advocate for us. Backing up for a second, how was that transition from being at a predominately white institution (PWI), to an HBCU, then back to a PWI?
Dr. Tiara Moore: I grew up in South Carolina, so I have always been the only black person in the room forever, you know? I was always the only one on the softball team, tennis, whatever. I knew I wanted to go to an HBCU for my masters because I felt like I had missed out on something. Transitioning from an HBCU to ODU was a mess because I felt immediately like I was not welcome. I did not want to hear from people that they picked me because I was black and had a scholarship. When I got to UCLA, the atmosphere was definitely toxic being black at a PWI, but I had good friends and access to LA which in general is just a more diverse city. Now, being in Seattle, it’s sometimes the same type of toxicity, but I think I adapt well.
MUSE: Well thank you for sharing that with us. It definitely feels like as students of color, we have to learn how to adapt to so many things that other students don’t have to think about. To switch gears a little bit, we’re all in a really strange place right now with COVID-19. What has kept you sane and motivated?
Dr. Tiara Moore: Right before coronavirus came to the US, two friends and I started A WOC Space, LLC, which is a company aiming to create a safe space for Women of Color to simply exist. We had already been doing consulting and trainings for allies and people of color to create and maintain equitable and inclusive workspaces, but once the pandemic hit, we decided to create A Virtual WOCSpace. We’ve been doing online meetups for writing spaces, mental health check-ins, yoga, women’s circles, and happy hours. I knew we were going to be at home so I thought it would be really cool to finally have this community that I’ve been wanting, and now we own a zone. That’s really how I’ve been getting through Covid. I love the coworking sessions of course, but I definitely look forward to the women’s circles and happy hours. It’s just such a great way to end the day because I don’t have that here in Seattle.
When the whole Zoombombing incident happened, it was such an unreal life experience (read about it in this blog post). It just shows you that in the midst of a pandemic, we’re still targeted, and we’re still not treated with respect. What’s been allowing me to get through everything, including the whole Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor situations, is having the space to talk about it properly. Whether it’s foolery happening at work, or some experience I just had where I had to teach someone basic diversity stuff, A Virtual WOCSpace is there for us to be there amongst each other.
MUSE: Those spaces are so important, and I, myself, have benefitted from A Virtual WOCSpace, so I thank you for creating it! Here at M.U.S.E., we want to provide that same kind of help and community to students who may not feel like they belong in graduate school or science as a field. Looking back, what’s something you wish you could have told younger Tiara?
Dr. Tiara Moore: I would have told her, “Girl…GIRL! You’re going to make it.” I would have told her that you’re doing so many things for yourself that you don’t even know how it’s going to help you, so don’t be so hard on yourself. Also, I would have told her to start advocating for herself more, start correcting people when they say your name wrong, stop allowing so many negative interactions from people. I wish younger Tiara could have known those things.
MUSE: Why are representation and diversity so important in higher education? How would you tell someone that?
Dr. Tiara Moore: Because we matter, it’s that easy! It’s mind-blowing to me when I hear, “Oh, DEI work is just so hard.” How? For you to treat me like a person?? It’s wild. It’s also about changing the narrative and perspective of who people of color are, who women of color are, what we’re supposed to be, and where we’re supposed to be. We can be ALL things, and we need to see us DOING all things.
MUSE: Preach! So, what’s next for Dr. Tiara Moore?
Dr. Tiara Moore: I’m excited about A WOC Space, LLC and the potential to actually make a difference. We just had a Solidarity Day, and it was our biggest event yet. It was so inspirational to hear from other women of color and seeing how much we all needed this space. But I think even without having the organization, we can still make a difference without being burned out. I think what I really want for us is to think about how we can make a difference in our roles that we do have, increase our community, and enrich our experiences.
I want to continue to advocate for myself, so that I can speak up and say, “Hey, actually this is how you pronounce my name,” and “That was inappropriate. Don’t say that again.” We should feel the courage to tell someone that they’ve done something wrong, address the situation, talk about ways to fix it, and then build a relationship, if that’s something you would like.
MUSE: Thank you for speaking with us, Dr. Tiara Moore! How can people find you if they want to connect with you?
Listen to We Danglin podcast: https://linktr.ee/wedanglin
Thank you to Dr. Tiara Moore for taking the time to talk with us and share her experiences through graduate school and continuing to provide space for women of color through A WOC Space!