As Black History month comes to an end, it is extremely important that we continue to take moments to celebrate the accomplishments of the Black Community, as well as recognize and learn about Black STEM leaders who made impactful discoveries and innovations in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In this blog post, I will be spotlighting Dr. Ernest Everett Just.
Dr. Ernest E. Just was a renowned zoologist (with a focus in cytology) who received worldwide recognition for his work and discoveries in his respective field. Born in 1883, in Charleston, South Carolina, he lost his father at the age of four. Supported by his mother, Ernest was able to leave his home and pursue superior education in the north at the age of 17. Ernest earned a scholarship to the Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire, where he would be the only Black student. He would then go on to attend Dartmouth and be the only student to graduate magna cum laude. Ernest majored in biology and minored in history.
After graduating, Ernest went to teach at Howard University at the university’s Zoology department. In 1909, he began research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he would focus on studying marine eggs. Ernest soon realized that earning a Ph.D. would be a key to future success as a researcher, thus he began a self-study program at the University of Chicago. Again, Ernest would graduate magna cum laude.
After the University of Chicago, Ernest was able to publish two very influential books about his research: Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Mammals and Biology of the Cell Surface. These books “reflected Just’s holistic view of eggs and embryos: that is, eggs are to be taken seriously in their own right rather than seen simply as tools to manipulate in order to prove a theory.” For his research, Ernest conducted chemical-induced parthenogenesis on sea urchins and sand worms; while doing this, he also observed the creature’s normal fertilization with sperm cells. Parthenogenesis allows an egg to develop into an embryo without fertilization from a sperm cell. In our AP Biology class, we learned about meiosis which is necessary for the creation of gametes such as sperm and egg cells. These cells develop into sperm or ova. Then during fertilization, a sperm and ovum (egg cell) unite to form a new diploid organism.
From his research, Ernest was able to conclude that eggs contained a necessary mechanism for starting development. The egg’s cytoplasm was the key to the cell’s development, not just the nucleus. Ernest’s work and research were crucial. His research was both creative and logically rigorous. Essentially, while other researchers at the time focused on how genes were responsible for how different organs develop, Ernest demonstrated that one of the most important factors for development was just the egg’s environment.
After reading a lot on Dr. Just, I am truly astonished. He was a gifted scholar and a talented researcher. Ernest was one of the first African Americans to get worldwide recognition for scientific discovery and is also considered one of the first Black marine biologists in American history. After reading about Ernest, I am inspired to learn more about other excellent Black scientists who have gone underappreciated.