Spotlight On… Melissa Cristina Marquez

MCM 1In the words of David Letterman “my next guest needs no introduction”…

Melissa Cristina Marquez is a leader in the world of scientific communications and as a proud Latina in STEM she is making waves for the ocean. She is involved with a variety of projects, from Homeward Bound to presenting Cuba’s Secret Shark Lair for this years annual Shark Week – there seems to be nothing Melissa can’t do. Founder of The Fins United Initiative and host of the Con Ciencia Azul podcast Melissa certainly shows no signs of slowing down.

When was your lightbulb moment?

To be a marine biologist? When I was four years old. I was born on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico and grew up in and around the water so my fascination with the ocean almost felt innate. I don’t remember a time I didn’t want to explore more of what was underneath the surface waves… and even now, I have this insatiable curiosity that I don’t think will ever be quenched.

You are easily one of the most enthusiastic shark scientists that I personally know of, and I am a huge shark fan myself, but for you, why did you choose sharks specifically?

Haha, thank you! You aren’t the first person to tell me I am the most enthusiastic shark scientist (I wear that badge proudly). I’ve always had an extreme fascination for misunderstood predators and, to me, sharks are the most misunderstood predator of them all. They are 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 these animals are.

MCM 3The first time I came across you was last year when your inspirational TedxWellington talk turned up on my mobile screen.

How did this opportunity come about? And why did you feel so compelled to speak out about the under-representation of female shark scientists?

Aw, thank you for calling it inspirational! TEDx posted an ad (I forget where) asking for people to submit their ideas for a talk, and so I decided to apply. Never in a million years did I think I would get an e-mail asking for an in-person interview! But the organiser (DK, who then became my coach) and I got along well and chatted about the idea, my MSc degree I was finishing up at the time, and just traveling in general.

It was said they would e-mail those who got a spot during business hours the next day… so when 6:00pm rolled around and I still didn’t have an e-mail, I was sure I didn’t make the cut. I sent DK a message thanking him for the opportunity to chat and that I was looking forward to going as an audience member. No sooner had I sent that, I received a confidential e-mail… I had gotten in! I was in such shock that I had a hard time picking my jaw off the floor and once I did, I started screaming in joy and jumping on the couches with my husband. I talk more about the behind-the-scenes here.

I had a tremendous opportunity to use, arguably, one of the most popular platforms in the world– I didn’t want to waste it. I wanted my advocacy for diversity in the field and for representation of women in STEM to shine through while somehow intermingling it with my love for diverse sharks. It just happened to revolve around female shark scientists because that’s the “world” I am in.

I had a special tribute at the end of my talk. For weeks, I had asked fellow female shark (or stingray, skate, and chimaera) scientists to send their selfies for a giant mural. The last slide was all their pictures, together, showing the diversity within our ranks… and just how many of us there are. It was a triumphant feeling to know I literally had them behind me.

You’re part of the Homeward Bound Programme for the coming year.

What made you want to be involved with this trailblazing initiative? And what are you most looking forward to by being a part of it?

I am honoured to be a part of this Homeward Bound Programme! I found this news out while I was in a conference in Malaysia and just began crying over my lunch because I was in shock. I didn’t apply at first because I thought there was no way I would make it in. The fact the board found me worthy enough to participate moves me to tears to this day! I didn’t have many women mentors growing up and felt like I was missing out not having that relationship with someone (or, multiple people). Homeward Bound has that “sistership” feeling I want. In the past few years I’ve gotten to know so many inspiring women who work in and out of my industry, and I feel like this is just the next step. This is an exciting opportunity for me to go out of my comfort zone, raise my voice, and do my part to boost female participation in environmental policy-making. And there’s the obvious holy guacamole, it’s Antarctica.

The Fins United Initiative is also doing exceedingly well to educate the public on the importance of shark conservation and showcase accurate research, particularly across social media.

Why is scientific communication important to you and what was the most difficult thing about establishing your own non-profit organisation?

MCM 5Thank you! I am quite proud of the little dent in shark education we have made and are continuing to strive for. We’re all about creating inclusive content that anyone who is interested can access for free. I believe science literacy, and particularly ocean literacy, are crucial to communities around the world… especially coastal ones, since anything that happens to our oceans affects them first! Having people understand that our actions – all of them- have some impact on our ecosystems is important to the health of not only these habitats but to people as well.

TFUI isn’t a true non-profit just yet, since I need to settle down somewhere to set down roots. However, the hours are the most difficult part… how do you tear yourself away from a passion project of yours?! I’m being better about it this year, trying to take weekends off and away from the computer, but I still work pretty extensive hours that can take a toll on one.

You’ve also just made your television debut for Shark Week 2018.

How did the opportunity to co-host Sharks of Cuba come about? And how did you remain so calm after a crocodile bit your leg?!

The opportunity came in the form of an e-mail from Discovery themselves! They apparently saw my TEDx talk and really liked my message. Talk about an “OH MY GOD, IS THIS REAL LIFE?!” moment. I screamed after I hung up the phone… my husband thought I had seen a huge roach or something! As for the remaining calm? No idea. Perhaps it was that I’ve been around wild predators before or that I was trained as a lifeguard (shout out to Disney – my first job!) and knew to stay calm under medical emergencies.

You have a new book series coming out too!

Is there anything you can tell me about your new series? Or even when it will be coming out?

Yes! I’m currently in the process of writing a young adult’s book that involves science, diverse scientists, and Aztec mythology. It revolves around a young girl who loves science-despite her strained relationship with math- and ends up meeting many cool women in STEM people either don’t know or have forgotten. How she does that I won’t say… must keep a few surprises, haha. Trust me, you will want to pick up this book series when it hits the shelves! I’ll make sure to announce that date when I find out.

One of the most admirable things about you is your dedication to inclusion of people, from all backgrounds, within science.

What do you want to see within the next 5 years for diversity within STEMM? And what steps do you think we can all take to make this happen?

I have always been a strong advocate for “making the table longer” and “adding more chairs.” I believe we all can have a seat at the “table” that is STEMM and hope we see more collaboration and a sense of community being fostered over competitive. It’s as easy as people with a platform lifting others up or passing the metaphorical microphone so someone else can tell their story, share their science. Standing up for minorities, for those you don’t see normally in science, is the easiest and most crucial step in my eyes. Just be a good neighbour, and with that mindset we can change the policies and cultures that are making science so exclusive.

MCM 4You wear so many hats in your day-to-day life; shark scientist, founder of TFUI, science communicator, public-speaker, podcast host of ConCiencia Azul. These all have a vital role in reaching out to as many people as possible with your message, but for you, is there one accomplishment you’ve made so far that you’re most proud of?

The one accomplishment I’ve gotten is the messages I get from people who say, “Thank you for being there. Thank you for showing me I can do it.” I got a lot of those after my Shark Week episode and it made my heart swell each time. I am so happy I can give people some hope that they too can be in science, despite what the media says or shows.

What would your advice be to young girls who want to follow in your footsteps and have a career within shark science?

My advice is KEEP AT IT.

If this is truly what you want to do, then don’t let anyone deter you! Get good grades, apply to colleges with a good a marine biology program, and try to volunteer with aquariums or museums that allow you to interact with the animals. TFUI will be coming out with a list of all the internships/volunteer positions worldwide that allow you to work with sharks and their relatives soon, so keep an eye out for that!

Finally, what are the next steps for Melissa Cristina Marquez?

Outside of writing my book series I am working to create bilingual resources and content for early-career scientists that otherwise would not have access to basic information such as “What is a resume?”, “How to make the most of your first conference,” and “How to network” for a few example. And, I am continuing to work on exciting collaborations for The Fins United Initiative and building a community of diversity and inclusion via ConCiencia Azul. All of what I am a part of ignites worlds within me. And now, more than ever, the world needs our light.

I would like to say a massive thank you to Melissa for participating in this interview. All photographs have been used with permission by Melissa.

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