Marine biologist and science communicator Melissa Márquez has always been fascinated by the ocean.
But growing up, she didn’t see any women — especially Latina women — represented in the field of ocean research.
Ms. Márquez decided that in addition to doing science herself, she would also be an inspiration to other young women who want to follow in her footsteps.
“I have the opportunity to be a role model for so many people,” said the Puerto Rican-born, Mexico-raised scientist.
Ms. Márquez, a PhD student at Curtin University, is the founder of the Finnish United Initiative, “an education and conservation program for sharks, skates, rays and chimaera”.
She has a large social media presence – with 26,000 followers on Twitter – and uses it to promote her belief that “you can’t be what you can’t see”.
She is also a children’s book author, podcaster and TV host, spreading the word wherever she can.
“I want to use my platform as a science communicator to be the role model I wish I had…not just for Latinas around the world, but for other people of color, who see me and say, ‘hey, like this little island girl I can do it, so can I,” she said.
Mrs. Márquez has traveled the world to explore the oceans. She received her bachelor’s degree in Florida, her master’s degree in Wellington, completed an independent study in South Africa and has lectured in more than 20 countries.
She has now landed in Perth and is undertaking what she considers her ‘dream project’.
“It just made sense to come to Western Australia,” she said.
“Australia is home to so many sharks that you can’t find anywhere else.”
The shark researcher, nicknamed “Mother of Sharks,” has drawn parallels between her experiences as a woman in the scientific industry and sharks in the ocean.
Her 2017 TEDx talk “Sharks and Female Scientists: More Alike Than You Think” explores this topic and has been viewed more than 30,000 times.
“We really need diversity and inclusion in science to make innovative scientific progress,” said Ms Márquez.
And just as diversity is so important to science, sharks are vital to the environment as well.
“The marine biology community has an expression that says, ‘a healthy ocean needs a healthy shark population,'” she said.
But the CSIRO estimates that in Australia’s southwestern region, the adult great white shark population is just 1,460.
Sharks are important
“Sharks are so important to our environment and our marine ecosystem, if you take that out, you not only start to dismantle a very delicate balance in the marine ecosystem, but it will also cause other problems,” said Ms. Márquez.
In addition to their ecological significance, Ms. Márquez said that sharks also have enormous cultural and economic importance.
“They bring in millions of dollars every year for ecotourism around the world,” she said.
Ms. Márquez is fascinated by the push and pull between our fear of sharks and our intense curiosity about sharks.
“For me, this is an area of fascination. I’m really interested in studying our relationships with sharks, how that has changed over the years and what this means for their conservation going forward,” she said.
Ms Márquez’s PhD project examines the use of shark habitats, includes fieldwork in northern Western Australia, trying out new technology and analyzing data.
“It’s figuring out why sharks are where they are,” she said.
Ms. Márquez believes that sharks have been misrepresented.
“They get such a bad reputation that they don’t deserve it,” she said.
“There are actually over 500 different species of sharks.
“We’re actually discovering new species all the time and so to paint them all and say they’re monsters… ‘man-eaters’ just don’t do them justice.”
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