The Wonder Woman of the Ocean
The number of women in STEM is around 24 percent. If you peel back the numbers, Latinas represent only 3 percent– making them as elusive as the 95 percent unexplored ocean floor. But even the darkest ocean may have a little light. Bring in Melissa Cristina Marquez, a bioluminescent “Wonder Woman” in the marine biology world. Melissa is 24 years old and already making a huge difference as a marine biologist.
Growing up on the island of Puerto Rico surrounded by water gave Melissa the perfect opportunity to dive into her passion – the ocean. She fell in love with exploring the underwater world around her and quickly became an advocate for it. She recalls, “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.”
A childhood passion now became her future. Melissa graduated from New College of Florida with a degree in marine ecology and conservation. She has explored waters of the Bahamas, South Africa, and New Zealand where she earned her masters at Victoria University of Wellington. You may have heard her in a self-produced Spanish-language podcast, ConCiencia Azul, or her TedTalk, brilliantly comparing female sharks to female scientists in the field. What makes Melissa stand out is that she recognizes the unique position she is in and is giving herself a platform for other women and other Latinxs in the field.
In true Wonder Woman fashion, she is tackling the obvious misrepresentations of women in STEM while tackling the misrepresentation of sharks through her organization, The Fins United Initiative (TFUI). The organization aims to bring ambassadors all over the world to provide easy-to-access information to educational institutions and other programs. Why? Melissa credits that to a human disconnection from wildlife. During her time in Sarasota Bay, Florida, she self-published a book on sharks, skates and rays in Sarasota Bay and a teacher asked her to give a talk to kids.
“I realized there was a big gap between the education system and the environment 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.” Her hope is to make TFUI a global non-profit with a physical center in the next year.
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!”
One of the contributing reasons for women to stop considering a future in STEM is because of the lack of support in a male-dominated field. It makes a career in STEM that much harder to envision and, as a result, the world misses out on the contributions of women leaning in at the STEM table.
Marie Wilson famously wrote, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” For Melissa, the lack of Latinos in STEM was an obstacle to overcome but that did not stop her.
“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 don’t want any kid to not see themselves in any industry. I want to be a positive role model for young girls, especially Latinas interested in STEM fields.”
For young Latinxs contemplating a career in STEM, Melissa offers this advice, “for the good or the bad, you need to be passionate about what you are doing. Nobody goes into science to ‘get rich.’ Don’t let people rain on your parade when it comes to your dreams! KEEP AT IT. If this is truly what you want to do, then don’t let anyone deter you!”
Diving in on the perfect opportunity to talk sharks and be that Latina scientist on TV, Melissa co-hosted a show during Discovery Channel’s Shark Week where she explored Cuba’s waters and survived a crocodile bite – no big deal.
And she’s not stopping there. She plans on earning her PhD and focusing her work on marine outreach and making sure the public receives reliable information about sharks and their relatives. She also aspires to publish a children’s book series on STEM where all the characters are Latinx to celebrate her culture. If all else fails, Melissa has a blog where she dives into eco-friendly/sustainable-living and is an art-seller on Etsy with her own ocean-themed prints. We don’t see Wonder Woman with her own Etsy now, do we?
Click here to get involved in The Fins United Initiative.
Catch Melissa Cristina Marquez in Shark Week on Aug.1 at 8 p.m. CST in Great White Kill Zone: Guadalupe.
About the author: Anna-Alizette Ruiz is a freelance marketing consultant and writer. Her work has been previously published in Press Pass Latino, Rivard Report and Latinitas Magazine.