Interview: Marine Biologist Melissa Cristina Márquez
Posted by Esther Jacobs on October 31, 2018
Melissa Cristina Márquez is a marine biologist from Puerto Rico and Mexico, who studies sharks and other chondrichthyans. She is also a past Oceans Research intern. Melissa has always had an interest in misunderstood predators, and think that sharks are the most misunderstood. Currently in Sydney (Australia) and in-between MSc and PhD, she is looking at chondrichthyan (shark, skate, ray, and chimaera) depictions in folkore and myths. She is interested in how people form attitudes towards predators (land vs marine), whether or not the larger region's public opinion matches the local folklore/myth, and if that perception of these animals sways conservation initiatives.
What is Fins United and why did you start it up?
The Fins United Initiative (TFUI; www.finsunited.co.nz) is a shark, skate, ray and chimaera education and conservation program aiming to unite fin lovers worldwide.
One of TFUI’s core missions is to provide a wealth of information about sharks and their relatives, the skates, rays, and chimaeras, that education institutions and other learning programs can easily access on our website and incorporate into their curriculum.
We also feature the people who work with these animals around the world so everyone can see them – and maybe see themselves among the lineup.
The organisation was first establish in 2013 in sunny Florida, and was dubbed as "Sarasota Fins." Inspired by the lack of shark education and conservation integrated in school curriculum's.
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.
How can we bridge the gap between scientific research and implementing it into conservation efforts?
Scientists need to communicate better not only with the general public but with lawmakers, policymakers, stakeholders and more to make sure their scientific research can be used as a foundation for future conservation initiatives (if applicable).
It’s all about communication - and sometimes scientists aren’t very good at that. This is why I think science communicators are so crucial.
Do you think it’s important for all marine research to link to conservation?
I think in some capacity, yes.
To have a healthy planet you need a healthy ocean environment. Conserving our oceans is of vital interest not only to the diverse life that calls that ecosystem home, but to humankind. If you think about it, our economy, our food sources - heck, really our very survival - all require a healthy ocean.
What are your main goals and outputs for you conservation career?
To protect anything, you need to care about it, and to care, you need to know that it’s there. But, not everybody has had the luxury to visit the ocean, or experience what is happening in the ocean.
I hope that through my initiatives I can show large audiences the great natural beauty and astonishing wildlife that our marine habitats have.
The goal of my conservation career is to have people come away with an appreciation of how important our oceans are, a better understanding of how all habitats are linked, what problems the ocean faces and what we can do to help.
I’ve got a few projects up my sleeve to do just that.
As a past Oceans Research intern, how did the internship experience help you in your career as a conservationist and researcher?
The internship really solidified for me that I wanted to study sharks and conserve them.
Seeing great whites in their natural habitat, so different from the monsters many paint them to be, really opened my eyes to how villainized they were and made me wonder how people came to that conclusion.
Oceans Research has grown since you were an intern, and now has more focus on conservation, as well as research. Do you think that was an important move?
Yes! Conservation benefits not only the animals and resources we are caring for, but ourselves, as well. By acting now to protect those animals and resources, we are ensuring a better future for all.
You’ve been invited to do a TedX talk, write for Forbes, and have featured on Shark Week and Daily Planet. What is your main goal when you get the opportunity to reach out to the wider public?
Honestly, my main goal is to always impart some sort of inspirational token or educational anecdote that sticks with someone even after they walk away from my talk, my article, or seeing me on television.
I am a huge believer of “you can’t be what you can’t see” so I hope that through the platforms I am privileged to have, that I can not only showcase to people that scientists come in all shapes and sizes, but that I can shine a spotlight on other normally underrepresented backgrounds.
I grew up wondering where the female marine biologists were, especially the Latinas, and really doubted whether I could break into a field that seemed not too welcoming for minorities.
I hope by seeing me, and my work, that anyone of any background thinks, “Huh. If this girl from a tiny Caribbean island can do it, so can I.”
So why are sharks and female scientists more alike than we think, as per the title of your TedX talk?
On TV, you often hear presenters refer to sharks as male even when they aren’t (one easy way to tell if a shark is a male or female is by a show/lack of claspers, which are essentially male reproductive organs that protrude from their pelvic fins).
Those “big guys” are actually big girls—and they do a lot of cool things.
For some species, their skin around their pectoral fins is thicker to minimize “love bite” damage during mating. Others can store sperm for long periods of time to get pregnant when they so choose—and some don’t need a male to do it (as seen by some female sharks in aquariums).
As I said in my TEDx talk, we’re like “deep sea sharks… there, but nobody is paying attention.”
Historically and even today, women contribute a lot to the STEM industry and don’t really get the credit they deserve. Since I’ve said those words, I’m happy to see many women in STEM shaking up the industry and making themselves be known!
Melissa and shark photo credit: Seven Sharp, New Zealand