For any individual, pursuing a career and developing passions is exceedingly more plausible when they are equipped with like-minded role models who resemble a faint yearning to themselves. Without these picturesque mentors, oftentimes, our future career plans can simply look unrealistic and far-out-of-reach. Unfortunately, this was the reality for STEM communicator and marine biology expert, Danni Washington. Nevertheless, Danni’s career has taken a go-round moment, as she now acts as a relatable female role model for all young women eagerly looking to enter the world of marine science. Through sharing her affinity for science by-way-of Pearson Publishing and FOX’s Xploration Nature Knows Best, Danni can now be seen thriving within the podcast community via her original webcast, Genius Generation. In this exclusive interview, Danni discusses how she originally entered the world of STEM and marine biology, what she hopes to achieve with her podcast, Genius Generation, and significant challenges she has experienced throughout her prosperous career.
Megan Morgante: Did anything/anyone, in particular, inspire you to enter the world of STEM and marine biology?
Danni Washington: I was actually influenced by the movie Free Willy. That was when I got my first idea of becoming a marine scientist and wanting to pursue that as my career. It truly speaks to the power of the media and how seeing something on screen, television or movie, can really change someone's perspective on something. As a seven-year-old watching that movie, it was life-changing. I wanted to be there for animals like orcas and see where they lived and how I could help them. That's where their original inspiration came from because no one in my family really understood why I wanted to pursue Marine Science. Eventually, I ran into my first real mentor in high school, who guided me on opportunities and showed me different pathways on how I could get there, not necessarily just to be a scientist studying orcas, but someone who is able to understand the ocean differently. Even though I didn't see anyone that looked like me as far as real role models, with the exception of Dr. Sylvia Earle who is an amazing marine biologist oceanographer and is still rocking to this day, I was still fascinated. As I got older, I learned from other people who inspired me, Jacques Cousteau, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Steve Irwin.
MM: Dive into a bit of your background in the marine biology world, and how it led you to where you are now?
DW: I'm not a traditional research scientist, I think that's something that people confuse a lot. I do have a degree in marine science and biology and I had a lot of research experience, but quickly after undergrad, I realized that I needed to be a communicator. I need to be someone who could relay the information from academia to the general public for people who don't have any type of science background. Most people’s level of scientific understanding doesn't go beyond high school or middle school. Whether they had a bad teacher during that time or they were just not interested at all. I wanted to be that person that could be the “in-between.” I jumped straight into my first job after my undergrad as an eco-geek with this group called Untamed Science and we were making videos for textbooks with Pearson publishing. That was my first on-camera experience and it was great because it was almost like film school. We were doing everything ourselves: Learning how to edit, work behind the camera, and write scripts. It was great training and it confirmed for me that this is what I wanted to do. The next viable leap that I thought I could take on was International television, which finally happened in 2016 when I hosted my first show on Fox Network called Xploration Nature Knows Best. That was the first nationally syndicated show that I've done. We reached two million homes every weekend and made me the first Black woman to host a science show here in the US. Ever since then I've focused on how I can create more media and science-focused content while giving it a different flare. I want to inspire more women and young girls to pursue careers in STEM because that is so critically important. We need diversity and inclusion now more than ever in the STEM fields.
My new podcast, Genius Generation is just another layer of this media content portfolio that I've been building. I love podcasts because it's passive, you're able to listen whether you're driving in your car or while you’re cooking dinner. You can enjoy a good story and use your imagination to think about what the host or guests are talking about. We're primarily focused on reaching eighteen-year-olds and under who are doing world-changing things and using their science smarts while also using their curiosity to create new solutions for some of the world's greatest challenges. I'm thirty-four, turning thirty-five this year, and I know that I'm not in the Gen Z demographic. I'm an older Millennial, but I think that no matter what age you are, you can find inspiration, hope, and excitement from the next generation.
MM: Tell us a little bit about how you joined the podcasting community through Genius Generation?
DW: Word-of-mouth has opened doors and opportunities for me within the podcasting community. I've done a ton of interviews on other podcasts and I truly enjoy podcasts because it allows room for imagination and takes us back to the times where people just used to listen to the radio for their entertainment. I think there's something really special that it brings us back to storytelling and how we opted to tell these stories that are so important. After doing all of these interviews, I received a message from Seeker. They had seen some of my other content and asked if I was interested in hosting a new show that they had coming up. It's been great and it's been a testament to the power of ultimately putting yourself out there. You never know who's going to see your content, so just create. That's usually my biggest message to people who ask how to start a career path like mine, you just have to create. You can have ten followers or you can have ten million, you never know who's in that pool of people watching you.
MM: After indulging in your podcast episodes, what do you hope listeners will gain from listening?
DW: Well, for our younger listeners, I want them to feel excited about the possibilities of what they can create themselves. For instance, maybe there's something that has been bothering them about their experiences or their community and they've always wanted to do something about it. I hope this podcast will give them the energy and inspiration to go for it and to not worry about how old they are, but to look at what resources they have right in front of them. For our older demographic, I think it's important that parents look to their children as changemakers and contribute to the effort of building them up. I always revert back to my mom who didn't understand why I wanted to go into marine science or science in general. She has an accounting background and an entrepreneurial background, but she was willing to say my child is passionate about this and I'm going to do everything that I can to support her in getting to where she wants to go. That looked like putting me in science-related summer camps and getting me into a specialized magnet program. I hope that parents who listen to this podcast will feel the same and have the reaction of knowing their young person can do anything. It's just a matter of putting the pieces in place and supporting them in whatever way they can.
MM: To jump back, you founded your own company, Big Blue and You, at the age of twenty-one. Tell us what inspired you to start this non-profit organization?
DW: That idea stemmed from the realization that I didn't see women who looked like me in ocean conservation. I’ve met so many children in my community that barely ever went to the beach or had any type of interaction with the ocean. Growing up in Miami, we're so blessed and lucky to be there because we have access. It's not just the beach and the ocean, but also the Everglades, which is a gem, you can't find it anywhere else in the world. That was our backyard, but I was disturbed by the fact that so many kids did not have access and didn’t feel welcome there. It was the question of how we can make this more inclusive, exciting, and bring in more diverse voices in ocean conservation? That's where the idea of Big Blue and You came from. It was serendipitous because the summer after I graduated, I applied for a contest with Roxy. They were doing a nationwide contest and all you have to do is submit a video about what you're passionate about and why. I took my cousins to the beach, we filmed the video on a big Panasonic camera, and we talked about plastic pollution. I ended up winning that contest and they gave me $10,000. With that money, I created the non-profit to form a legacy and serve my community.
MM: What advice would you give to your younger self?
DW: When creating, don't wait for the specific thing that you need to feel like you're legit. You need to just begin and go confidently in the direction that you're called because that is very specific to each person. I envision a world where people are willing to listen to that voice, that intuition, within themselves that tells them this is what I love to do. Instead of ignoring it, answer the call of the world saying you need to follow your passions, I think that all of our problems would be solved if that were the case. I think every person has unique skill sets and talents that no one else has and no one else will ever have. We all bring unique things to the table and we just need more people to feel confident to step up.
MM: Have you ever experienced any significant challenges throughout your career path?
DW: I do think that I'm trailblazing a different type of path, and that in itself is extremely challenging, because you're dealing with self-doubt and constantly feeling like you’re making the wrong choices. But, when I bury myself in the work itself, those internal battles tend to quiet down a bit. The second challenge would be that as a Black woman in the STEM world, it’s easy to not feel as though you have a lot of allies or others that can relate to your experience. You constantly have to deal with this imposter syndrome, which has been very much present in my experience. Having to overcome it and realizing this is what I'm supposed to be doing and you can't be everything for everyone. Some people are not going to like you or approve of what you do. The third challenge would be the ability to make a living and being able to create resources. When you're an artist or any type of creative, there is a level of struggle that comes with it, because you have to actually build up your portfolio of work in order to show people what you bring to the table.
MM: If you could see yourself or the marine biology community evolve, what would that look like for you?
DW: The Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development started this year, which is going to go until 2030, and essentially what we're doing is we’re looking to the ocean as the ultimate resource for solutions regarding climate change and anything else related to the health of our planet. People call this planet Earth, but, in reality, it's planet ocean, we're made up mostly of water. Because the ocean is so vast, big, and unregulated, there are so many challenges that come with that. If we can focus our energy on healing the ocean and bringing it back to optimal health as best we can, that's going to solve a lot of things for us collectively as a human race. The planet will go on without us. It's not about us being here, it's about the planet and our support system being intact. We need to really step it up. We're also aiming to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030. That's a big goal as well within the ocean conservation community.
MM: Do you have any outside passions or hobbies that you enjoy partaking in when you're not doing this life-changing work?
DW: I love to cook. I love being in the kitchen, which is really therapeutic for me, especially when I can cook for friends and family. I scuba dive, which is usually my absolute favorite pastime. I have also dabbled in quilting [laughs].
Photography by Louis Benjamin Del Guercio