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w.malcolm.byrnes Professor W. Malcolm Byrnes of Howard University. Photo courtesy W. Malcolm Byrnes
Just in his lab E.E. Just at his lab at Howard University in 1916.

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June 2, 2016
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Woods Hole Juneteenth Celebration Features Lecture on E.E. Just, First African American Marine Biologist

John K. Bullard Diversity Award will also be presented

The 2016 Woods Hole Juneteenth celebration, sponsored by the Woods Hole Black History Month Committee and the Woods Hole Diversity Initiative, continues the theme of “hallowed grounds: sites of African American memories” with a lecture on the life of Ernest Everett Just, the first African American marine biologist who spent many summers in Woods Hole.

Biochemist W. Malcolm Byrnes of Howard University will discuss “E.E. Just’s Broad (and Hidden) Influence on the Development of Modern Biology” on Friday, June 17, at noon in the Speck Auditorium of Rowe Laboratory at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL). The event is free and open to the public.

More than a decade ago Byrnes became interested in the work of Ernest Everett Just and has written more than a dozen scholarly articles and given more than ten presentations on Just to a variety of audiences in the U.S. and abroad. Just was known for his studies of fertilization, the biology of the cell surface, and early development in marine invertebrates. He began working summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole in 1909 and published more than 50 scientific papers based on his 20 years of summer research at the MBL. His book, “The Biology of the Cell Surface,” was published in 1939.

Byrnes will argue that Just’s concept of the “independent irritability” of living systems has influenced several areas of modern biology, including cell signaling, protein allosteric behavior, cell fate plasticity and evolutionary development biology. However, because the chain of attribution that normally exists for scientific work was broken, Just’s broad impact in these areas has remained hidden. “E.E. Just’s influence on biology is much broader than previously has been known or appreciated,” Brynes said.

After earning an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Xavier University in Louisiana in 1981, Byrnes continued his studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where he received a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1994. He did postdoctoral research in molecular medicine at Cornell University and taught courses in biochemistry and other chemical sciences at Xavier and at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette and at Howard University, where he currently holds the position of Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the College of Medicine. His research focuses on the structural and functional characterization of enzymes, especially ones of potential biotechnological or biomedical importance from bacteria and archaea.

The John K. Bullard Diversity Award, given every other year to an individual in the Woods Hole community who plays a significant role in making the community more inclusive and more welcoming of people of all backgrounds, will be presented by the Woods Hole Diversity Initiative as part of the Juneteenth event at the MBL.

The award is named in honor for John Bullard, former president of the Sea Education Association, who was presented the first award in 2012 for his leadership, vision, and commitment to diversity in the Woods Hole science community and for his role in forming the Woods Hole Diversity Initiative and serving on the Woods Hole Diversity Advisory Committee. Longtime MBL employee Lionel Hall received the award in 2014.

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States, dating back to its origin in Galveston, Texas, when Union soldiers enforced the Emancipation Proclamation and freed all remaining slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865. Celebrations today focus on African American freedom and emphasize education and achievement.

The Woods Hole Black History Month Committee comprises members from the six scientific institutions in Woods Hole: Marine Biological Laboratory, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole Research Center, and USGS Science Center for Coastal and Marine Geology. The committee organizes special events during February for Black History Month and throughout the year to promote diversity in the institutions and in the local community.

The Juneteenth celebration is also supported by the Woods Hole Diversity Initiative. In 2004 the leaders of six Woods Hole science institutions signed a memorandum committing their institutions to work together to attract and retain a more diverse workforce. That memorandum established the Woods Hole Scientific Community Diversity Initiative. The Diversity Initiative in turn established an advisory committee to make recommendations as to how the institutions can make the village a more diverse, more inclusive community. The memorandum was reaffirmed by the six institutions in 2012.

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