Melissa Marquez is a Victoria University of Wellington MSc candidate and founder of Sarasota Fins, a shark education and conservation program.
What do you do on an average work day?
Every day is so different! I’m currently working on my MSc, which will evaluate the spatial and temporal distribution of Chondrichthyans, and how their distributions overlap with the fisheries. In doing so, this research will consider the ecological role of sharks, and the way in which they use different habitats. Most days I’m doing background research on shark life histories, shark habitat use, current fishery stocks, and more. I’ll soon be comparing that with the large datasets from MPI trawl surveys and the observer programme.
Most of my day, however, is spent emailing. It’s my primary form of communication (both for my programme and academics), so it’s important for me to keep it organised. On a good day, it takes a few hours to get through my inbox. Sarasota Fins is growing and it shows with the amount of mail I get!
Oh, and of course I do research for the Sarasota Fins “Shark blog” and create other social media content (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr).
What did you study at school? And after high school?
During high school I focused heavily on science, knowing that it was a strong suit of mine. Interestingly enough, I was also an ace in my English/Writing classes and wrote fictional stories for fun. These two loves spilled over to my education in university. I had the phenomenal opportunity to study marine biology with SeaTrek, a program that takes kids on boats over a summer to obtain their scuba diving certifications. It was here I learned the basics of how to set up a proper scientific study, the first being observing coral bleaching rates versus depth.
I got my undergraduate degree in Marine Ecology and Conservation, pursuing a passion of mine since I was little. My small, liberal arts school (New College of Florida) allowed me to tailor my education to obtain the unique degree. I was able to get hands on experience with a number of shark species, which really cemented my desire to pursue studying them.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
During my undergraduate career, I took quite a few fisheries classes, and was very passionate about scientific outreach. While I never would have guessed that I would end up a) a science communicator and b) working with fisheries, it makes sense that I am where I am now if you look back at my undergraduate career.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
It may seem like the world expects you know what you want right out of college, but you aren’t alone if you don’t have a “thing” just yet. Replace any self-doubt with the outlook that you’ll find your niche in due time. Many of my friends are taking a “gap year,” and I almost did that before I accepted this MSc position! There will be hurdles in any subject area, but just continue to be persistent, passionate and ask many questions, and you’ll be successful. Surround yourself with people who have similar passions and don’t be afraid to go up to someone you look up to (First time I met Dr. Greg Skomal I blurted out, “I’m such a big fan of yours,” slinked away thinking I was a doofus for saying that to a professional and afterwards had a wonderful talk with him—no judgment at all). Everyone appreciates authenticity!
What are some of your career highlights so far?
- Being able to see Great White sharks breaching out of the water chasing seals is definitely a highlight, which inspired me to study them further, leading to my undergraduate thesis (The theory of sex specific differences in habitat use and migratory behavior shown in great white sharks, Carcharodon carcharias, in South Africa). I’m blessed that I’ve been given ample opportunities to pursue my studies, including those here in New Zealand.
- Sarasota Fins recently connected with schools and other youth-service organizations in all 50 United States, which was a goal I set up for myself earlier this year. Considering it has only been around for less than two years, I’m very proud of that accomplishment. It also was acknowledged by the 2015 Brower Youth Awards committee as a program for special merit. I currently run this program by myself (hoping to expand this 2015/2016 year), and these were a big achievements that made me burst into happy tears.
- The “lightbulb” that goes off in a child’s head after explaining the importance of sharks and the perils they face is also a highlight. Knowing I made them think differently about these predators gives me hope for these future generations—both kids and sharks.
- I’m proud to announce that Sarasota Fins just opened up volunteer positions for program ambassadors, inspiring shark enthusiasts, students and scientists to spread shark education worldwide. Hopefully there are some exciting partnerships and opportunities down the road!
Why do you believe engaging in STEM – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
Science affects every one of us, every day! The modern world would not be what it is without science. It’s our responsibility to understand the basics of science, as many will be tasked with making decisions that will affect New Zealand as a whole based on scientific discoveries. At the very least one can appreciate science as a whole!
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Science has a range of diverse topics, so why not have a diverse team? Not all scientists are white men with lab coats, as the stereotype is in most media! We need to show the “other” faces of science, as representation is important. How can a student see themselves in a career in STEM if they do not have role models? One of my role models was the late Dr. Eugenie Clark, affectionately known as the “Shark Lady,” who inspired women and men alike. Also, women can bring a different point of view and have unique ways of doing things thanks to their different upbringings. This can lead to wonderful collaborations!
Women have important contributions to make, and it’s time to share them with the world!
Melissa Cristina Marquez is a Victoria University of Wellington MSc candidate. She also founded Sarasota Fins, a shark education and conservation program that was based out of Sarasota, Florida, USA while she attended university there, which is currently taking root here.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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