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Joan Murrell Owens: Journey to the Sea

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

Hello everyone! I'm Tina and this is Women Weekly, where I post about one wonderful woman in the STEM field every Friday. This week I wrote about a woman who turned her career around to fulfil her childhood dream – Joan Murrell Owens.


Joan Murrell Owens was born in 1933 in Miami, Florida. Growing up, her dad used to take Joan and her siblings on family fishing trips, which made her fall in love with the sea. She enjoyed the books of Eugenie Clark and Jacques Cousteau and wished to study the ocean as them. The majority of Joan's family had higher education, which further encouraged her to pursue knowledge. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and got into Fisk University, a historically black college, with 2 scholarships. Unfortunately for Joan, there wasn't a program for marine biology, so she ended up choosing fine arts as her major, her minors in psychology and mathematics. She continued her studies at the University of Michigan, gaining an MS degree in guidance counseling with an emphasis on reading therapy, while also teaching at the University of Michigan's Children's Psychiatric Hospital.

She moved to Washington D.C. to teach remedial English at Howard University, then to Massachusetts to design programs for teaching English to educationally disadvantaged students. There, she started feeling that the work she was doing was getting too advanced for her and to continue, she'd need further schooling. This, combined with the finding that her male colleagues had much bigger salaries, made her decide to turn her career around and return to her childhood dream.

She moved back to D.C. and enrolled in George Washington University at the age of 37. Since there still wasn't an available program for marine science, Joan decided to major in geology and minor in zoology. After receiving her BS and MS degrees, she returned to Howard University, his time as a professor of geology. There at Howard University, she would go on to have a successful teaching career.

Joan had traits of sickle cell anemia, meaning she couldn't dive, which made her research a bit more difficult, but she managed. At the Smithsonian Institution, she studied coral samples collected by a British expedition in the 1880s both for her doctorate thesis as well as for her further research. Specializing in small snowflake-looking corals called button corals, and building on the work of coral biologist Don Squires, she managed to catalog the physical properties of each button coral in the collection. By the end of her time at the Smithsonian Institution, she described a new genus – Rhombopsammia, with its two species and discovered a new species of the genus Letepsammia, which she named L. franki, after her husband, Frank A. Owens.

Joan Murrell Owens always dreamed of being a marine biologist, but her journey wasn't easy. Her story shows us, that even though the beginnings might not look promising, reaching our goals is still possible, and better later than never.






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