By Poornima Peiris
For many people, sharks and rays are regarded with fear, but for young marine biologist Melissa Marquez they inspire admiration, respect, and an entire career. Marquez raises awareness about chondrichthyans (the class to which sharks, skates, rays, chimaeras, and cartilaginous fish belong) through her foundation The Fins United Initiative. Marquez has a BA (Hons) degree in Marine Ecology and Conservation from the New College of Florida, USA and an MSc in Marine Biology from the Victoria University of Wellington, NZ.
Marquez is also a passionate science communicator and believes in creating opportunities for women in STEM, especially for those from Latin backgrounds. As a result of her incredible work in marine biology, she was invited to give a TEDx talk in 2017 in Wellington.
Obviously, we were curious to learn more about her and her journey towards becoming an expert on the most infamous creatures of the sea.
PP: Tell me a little bit about yourself and especially what lead you to this path that you are on now?
MM: I grew up in the tropics in the Caribbean and this heavily influenced my love for marine life as a child. My introduction to science was through my mom, who was a scientist, and she encouraged me to develop my own passion for science, as well - although my parents might have been happier if I had stuck to something manageable with less teeth instead of chondrichthyans! During my university years, especially in 2013, I had filmed videos of the research I was doing to send back to family and friends. This was my first foray into science communication.
PP: Tell me about The Fins United Initiative (TFUI) and what that journey was like?
MM: While I was going to school in Sarasota, Florida, I realized people were disconnected from the wildlife in Sarasota Bay. During that time, I self-published a book on sharks, skates, and rays in Sarasota Bay and a teacher asked me to give a talk to the kids. I realized there was a big gap between the education system and the environmental curriculum for schools. The program came along with me as I traveled around, and it became national, then international, and took on a life of its own. It grew from Sarasota Fins to The Fins United Initiative.
PP: Why are you so passionate about what you are currently working on? What should people know that is important?
MM: I am passionate about the diverse chondrichthyans and the diverse scientists studying them. When I was growing up I didn’t know anyone who looked like me, a Latina studying marine science. Especially on TV, they don’t show many female scientists studying these sharks. I am interested in shining a spotlight on this field so that girls growing up can see this as a viable future career option. I don’t want to look at a row of scientists and not see myself represented. I want to be a positive role model for young girls, especially Latinas interested in STEM fields.
PP: What are any upcoming projects or plans that you are working on?
MM: I am writing a bilingual book about science for young kids, where the main character Maria goes back in time to meet women in STEM. I am working on bilingual academic and career guides, such as how to prepare for conferences, set up resumes, and write cover letters.
PP: What does the future of TFUI look like?
MM: We are hoping to make it global and to have a physical center. People should keep an eye out as it is becoming a more collaborative enterprise - I believe we all can accomplish great things through cooperation rather than competition.
PP: How was your TedX experience?
MM: Terrifying! There were about 5000 people watching the talks. I was the last person in the lineup. Before I went on, I was listening to the musical soundtrack of Hamilton to keep myself energetic and motivated. Thankfully I had rehearsed my talk enough that I did get to enjoy the experience. My parents and friends also tuned in to watch from the States, so it was great to have that support. I had so many people come up to me to share their stories and experiences after the talk.
PP: What is one of the most interesting things that happened to you on the job?
MM: During field work, I was stung by the bark scorpion (the most venomous scorpion in the US). There wasn’t any anti-venom at the site because the last person who used it had forgotten to refill it. My arm was basically paralyzed and my coworkers did not tell me which type of scorpion had stung me. I was in a lot of pain!
PP: Do you have any advice for young scientists?
MM: For the good or the bad, you need to be passionate about what you are doing. Nobody goes into science just to get rich. Don’t let people rain on your parade when it comes to your dreams!
PP: Do you have a favorite quote?
MM: “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination” —Jimmy Dean
About the Author
Poornima Peiris is an engineer interested in all things STEM related. She is the founder of an initiative encouraging women and minorities to pursue STEM related careers. She has conducted research in various stem disciplines at national labs and was a participant of NASA's space grant program. She is currently working on producing her own science podcast with her local community. Her scientific contributions include a publication in a scientific journal & besides reading up on scientific innovations, she also loves to read books on neuroscience, paint landscapes & create personalized wedding gifts. Aside from dabbling in the creative arts, she does fencing & tennis. Always a Sri Lankan at heart, she loves the ocean & spring weather. She currently splits her time between Massachusetts & New York.
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