Young Hispanic marine biologist, ‘Wonder Woman’ of the ocean
Latinas in the STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math – fields are few and far between. And according to Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan policy institute the Center for American Progress, only account for 3 of the 24 percent of overall women in STEM-related careers in the U.S.
Given these numbers, it’s safe to say, Latinas in STEM are almost as elusive as the nearly 95 percent of unexplored ocean floor. But even the darkest ocean can reflect a little light. That’s what Melissa Cristina Marquez, 24, a “Wonder Woman” of sorts in the world of marine biology is doing through her work on self-produced Spanish-language podcast, ConCiencia Azul, and her TedTalk, in which she brilliantly compares female scientists to female sharks.
Marquez, who is half Mexican and half Puerto Rican, and is the founder of The Fins United Initiative (TFUI), a shark, skate, ray and chimaera education and conservation program, says growing up on the Island surrounded by water gave her ample opportunity to fully dive into her passion – the ocean. From an early age, she enjoyed exploring the underwater world and quickly fell in love with it, so much so, that she decided to become an advocate for it.
“I’ve always had an extreme fascination with it [the ocean] and with misunderstood predators and, to me, sharks are the most misunderstood of them all,” she said. “They’re so important to our oceans – an ecosystem that covers most of our planet! – how a small group of animals could have such a large impact really intrigued me and so, here I am, studying them and trying to get others to see how vital they are.”
Marquez decided to pursue her love of the sea and marine creatures at a high level. In 2015, she obtained a degree in marine ecology and conservation from the New College of Florida in Sarasota. And the following year went on to earn a Masters degree in marine biology at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Since then, she has done ocean exploration work from the Bahamas to South Africa.
Marquez said she is aware of the “unique” position she’s in professionally and is trying to create a platform for women and other Latinx who wish to follow in her footsteps by pursuing a career in STEM.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t know anyone who looked like me and was pursuing marine science,” she said.
“I didn’t see examples of this on TV either. I didn’t see female scientists studying sharks. I’m interested in shining a spotlight on this field so that girls growing up can see this as a viable career option. I don’t want to look at a row of scientists and not see myself represented and don’t want children to have to experience this either that’s why I want to be a positive role model for young girls, especially Latinas interested in STEM fields.”
Though Marquez said the lack of Latino representation in STEM was discouraging, she didn’t let it stop her from working to make her dreams come true. And that’s the advice she offers to young Latinx contemplating a career in STEM: “If this truly what you want to do, keep at it. Don’t let others rain on your parade. Be passionate and committed.”
Through her marine education and conservation program, Marquez is working to increase representation of women in STEM as well as dispelling common misconceptions about sharks like those often shared in the media. She also jumped at the opportunity to “that Latina scientist on TV” when she was asked to co-host a Discovery Channel show during Shark Week in which she explored Cuba’s waters.
One of TFUI’s core missions is to provide a wealth of information about these four animals that education institutions and other learning programs can easily access on the group’s website and incorporate into their curriculum. It’s a mission that started years ago when Marquez was a student living in Sarasota Bay. She had self-published a book on sharks, skates and rays, and a local teacher asked her to visit her class and speak to the children.
“I realized there was a missing link in the curriculum being taught at schools,” she said. Schools needed, Marquez said, more information to teach students about the environment. “I developed a program and it came along with me as I traveled around, and soon it became national and then international. It took on a life of its own.”
Marquez’s new goal? To turn The Fins United Initiative into a global non-profit with a brick-and-mortar location within the next year. She’d also like to publish a children’s book series featuring Latinx characters in STEM fields.
But for now, she has her agenda pretty full. She was accepted to Homeward Bound – an Australia-based leadership initiative for female scientists that will take her to the icy waters of Antarctica. And plans on earning her PhD and focusing her work on marine outreach to ensure that the public receives more reliable information about sharks.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing either. Like many women in STEM, Melissa says the hardest part of her career has been turning rejecting into motivation. “As an early career scientist, and I’ve heard a lot of “no,” “this won’t work,” and “I’m not interested” which I at first took personally. But now I use them to better myself!”