Her thoughts — A profile of Roger Arliner Young

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, May 19, 2022

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When one has to take care of a loved one, while working to achieve academic success, they can be daunting tasks. Acclaimed biologist, marine biologist and zoologist Roger Arliner Young met those challenges head on. Young was born in Clifton Forge, Virginia in 1899 but was raised in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania. Young’s family was poor and most of their time and resources were spent caring for her disabled mother Lillie.

In 1916 Young enrolled in Howard University in Washington, D.C. to study music. She didn’t take her first science class until 1921. Although Young’s grades were not stellar at first, some of her teachers saw a student with promise and one of those was Dr. Ernest Everett Just — a prominent African American biologist who was head of the university’s zoology department. Young graduated in 1923 earning her bachelor’s degree in biology. Subsequently, in 1924 Young entered graduate school at the University of Chicago earning her master’s degree in 1926.

From 1923 to 1935 the diverse academic worked as an assistant professor with Dr. Just at Howard University. In addition, Young assisted Dr. Just with his research from 1927 to 1930 which was published in various publications.

While a graduate student in Chicago Young was invited to join Sigma Xi, a scientific research society — an unusual honor for a master’s student, and she published her first article on “The excretory apparatus in Paramecium” in the journal Science. Young was the first African American woman to research and professionally publish in marine biology.

Young also worked with Dr. Just during the summers, beginning in 1927, at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. One of their projects was researching the fertilization process in living cells.

In 1929 Young became interim head of the zoology department at Howard University. Unfortunately, she suffered permanent eye damage due to the ultraviolet rays used in experiments she helped conduct for Dr. Just.

In the midst of obtaining her doctoral degree Young dealt with the demands of taking care of her sick mother as well as continuing to teach and research.

Young obtained her doctorate degree in zoology, the first African American woman to do so in 1940, from the University of Pennsylvania after suffering setbacks in the mid-1930s when she began her doctoral journey.

Once her doctorate was completed Young became an assistant professor at the North Carolina College for Negroes and Shaw University during 1940-1947 as well as teaching in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana until 1959.

Young contributed much to science with her research on the effects of direct and indirect radiation on sea urchin eggs, the hydration and dehydration processes in living cells and structures that control the salt concentration in paramecium. Young never married but suffered financial struggles and lost her mother after years of illness. Consequently, in the 1950s she checked herself into a hospital for mental health issues.

Young died Nov. 9 1964, in New Orleans at age 65. Young was recognized in 2005 by Congress for her trailblazing accomplishments in science and the Roger Arliner Young Marine Conservation Diversity Fellowship was established to support young Black Americans who desired to work in marine environmental conservation.

Young was a visionary who maneuvered between her academic pursuits and caring for her ailing mother. Even battling her own mental health problems with dignity, perseverance, determination and strength. She proved that to get through you must go through.

Judy Moore lives in Wylliesburg and can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com. She works at The Central High Museum as a tour guide.