Episode 7: Marine Biology with Melissa Márquez

In this episode we chat about sexual harassment in science, particularly in regards to the vulnerability associated with early career researchers, remote field sites, and women of colour. We learn about Rachel Carson, an influential marine biologist and author who sparked the environmental movement. We got to chat with Melissa Márquez, a passionate shark scientist and science communicator, all about her views on reducing competition and inspiring the next generation of scientists. Lastly, we chat about The Fins United Initiative, an amazing educational program founded and run by Melissa!

Click the play button below to listen to the episode, or download it from SoundCloud or iTunes to listen on the go! Enjoy!

Show notes for today’s episode – click on the links below!
Melissa Márquez:Melissa.jpg
Fins United Initiative

Transcript Below:

-Ukulele Intro-

Cordon & Nicole: This is Superwomen in Science!

C: I’m Cordon and I’m a music therapist.

N: And I’m Nicole, I’m a neuroscientist.

C: We will be discussing the past, present, and future of women in science.

N: Highlighting a variety of scientific endeavours as well as issues facing women in science. Today we’re talking about Marine Biology!

C: So to start our seventh episode, we thought we would talk about something that’s really present in the media right now, but is also very present everyday in academia. So we wanted to talk about sexual assault.

N: Mhm. So, sexual harassment and assault is rampant in academia. And on top of that, the environment of academia basically condones this behaviour, by tending to care more about preserving the reputation of the institution or their star scientist who has been accused of allegations, than actually taking action to support survivors. So we just wanted to discuss this today.

C: So there are a lot different facets of sexual harassment that are present in academia. One of the first one that really comes to mind is early career researchers, because you have this power dynamic that exists, and the repercussions that exist for a woman speaking up against harassment can have major impacts on her role as a researcher and her role in the field.

N: Mhm. Yeah, and there was a super disturbing article in the Guardian actually, that was titled Sexual Harassment is Rife in Universities, but Complaining Means Risking Your Career. So that just builds on what you said, that for early career researchers, you know, they depend so much on who their supervisor is, and their support. The article also goes on to say that you know, in academia it’s publish or perish, and your job is tied to how many publications you have, and this idea that networking really comes into play, and if you’re making a complaint against a senior man who might end up deciding if your work gets published or not, so that’s an example of this fear of coming forward, because it can seriously affect your job.

C: Yeah. And then there’s a couple other things that might go under the radar, so they’re not talked about, or thought about, or really considered. So, field research.

N: Kathryn Clancy is an anthropology professor, and she actually studies harassment in science, and she did a big study on surveying academic field experiences for harassment or assault. So something super disturbing that she came across in her studies was that people were telling her “what happens in the field stays in the field”, and that’s just nauseating and terrifying. When you think about researchers out studying in Antarctica or these really remote places, and the amount of vulnerability that comes with that, and science needs to address that, and actually step up and do something about that.

C: Yeah. And you have the imbalance too, of how many women compared to how many men do fieldwork too, in different scientific fields.

N: And who you’re reporting to, as well, like maybe the person you would report sexual assault to is the abuser, or they’re the person who controls information to the outside, like the internet or that type of thing.

C: Another aspect that a lot of people might not realize is that women of colour face way greater risks about gender and racial harassment in science as well as academia.

N: Yeah, and so, and this came out in her recent 2017 study of women in astronomy and planetary sciences. So her results in this study confirmed that due to the harassment from their male colleagues many women of colour feel unsafe at work, unsafe attending conferences and unsafe conducting field research.

C: It’s so upsetting that 1) we don’t know about it, but just the fact that it’s happening you’re keeping all these amazing women of colour scientists and all these diverse scientists out of going to work and going to conferences and conducting research in the field, and it’s just so sad that we’re losing all of this.

N: Yeah. And you’re losing all the potential ideas they could bring to the field. And that’s something that’s not touched upon enough, you know, you – or institutions, go to these great lengths to keep these “esteemed researchers” because, you know, they have these “remarkable minds”. And this was actually a tweet on Twitter, and I’ll find it and we’ll link it down below, but somebody had mentioned that you know, and this was related to Harvey Weinstein, but what about all those people who dropped out because of the abuse, and the harassments? What contributions could they have done that we are now deprived of? So, I don’t care about the contributions of an abuser. Just perform disciplinary actions, and there will be other minds. There are incredible minds out there that are capable of doing science, and we need to give them the opportunity to do that.

C: Yeah. And we need to stop perpetuating this power, and this culture, that was built on the privilege, you know? Built on all of the privilege of men, going back to the beginning of science, when men were the only ones considered to do science. News flash, that’s not the way it works any more, and it’s not how it should work anymore, so something needs to change.

N: 500 Women Scientists, which is a wonderful organization that we’ve talked about on this podcast before, they have, what they call, an End Harassment list, which has a lot of really great ideas for how we can try to start to initiate policy change and change at the institutional level, of how can we change this systemic problem that we really need to address.

C: So one of the recommendations is to flat out refuse to work with sexist colleagues. Make it clear to repeat offenders that they are harming everyone’s ability to do their work. Don’t write grants and papers with them. Don’t invite them to events. Refuse to participate in events to which they’ve been invited and tell the organizers why their participation makes you and your peers uncomfortable. Tell them sexism has no place in science.

N: Yeah. And that idea that there are these people out there that we all know are abusers. And it’s termed a whisper network, that people just whisper around “oh, stay away from that guy”. That’s obviously – something is going to slip through the cracks and someone will not be told, so that can’t be a way of policing it. We need to actually address it and get them out of academia. By making them not able to participate in conferences, and talks, and celebrating their academic achievements, while subtly ignoring all of the abuse.

C: Mhm. And even though this is published by 500 Women Scientists, men scientists need to take the initiative and do this too.

N: Yeah. So, at a conference, you know, say something if you see something happening, don’t just write it off as “oh, it’s just that guy”. So 500 Women Scientists also mention in their article to also really push for policy change. So they highlight that the American Geophysical Union has now classified sexual harassment as scientific misconduct, which is amazing. So they suggest asking your society, whatever branch of science you’re doing to do the same. Push universities to transparently update and enforce anti-sexism policies and move toward zero-tolerance for harassment and assault.

We were also contacted the other day by a listener of the podcast, that said that she has created a small online platform for women to share their experiences with sexism, sexual harassment and assault, and she thought we might be interested in sharing it with our audiences. So it’s called No Sexism in Science, and she gave us the website which we can link down below.

C: So everything you heard us quote or talk about today will be down in the shownotes, along with a couple other great articles written by women in science about their experiences.

C: Today we’re reading about Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, conservationist and author.

From an early age, Rachel Carson could always be found looking at birds, bugs and fish. She was born in 1907 and grew up on a Pennsylvania farm. She got her master’s in zoology at Johns Hopkins University, but when her father died, Rachel decided against getting a doctorate so she could instead support her family. She became the second woman to work at the US Bureau of Fisheries, writing radio scripts about sea creatures. When she wasn’t at her government job, she did personal writing about wildlife.

Rachel’s poetic writing allowed her to reach people in all walks of life. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind, got little attention, but her next book, The Sea Around Us, became a sensation! She won the National Book Award and quit her job to write The Edge of the Sea.

In the 1950’s, the US government and private industry started to blindly overuse the pesticide DDT. We now know that DDT is highly toxic and that large doses can cause liver damage and seizures. DDT was being used everywhere, from the bug spray you’d use at picnics to all of our crops – but it killed more that just pests.

Rachel Carson received a letter from an old friend, Olga Huckins, when a plane spraying DDT killed all the song birds in her sanctuary. This inspired Rachel to research and write her greatest book, Silent Spring. Rachel’s research found that DDT was poisoning livestock, killing fish, fatally weakening birds’ eggs and wreaking havoc on the ecosystem.

She wrote that book while battling cancer, and she needed to constantly defend her findings. Chemical companies slandered her work, but Rachel would not be bullied, and the truth about DDT became public. She even spoke in front of the US Senate.

She died in 1964, 2 years after Silent Spring was published. The book raised awareness – and action would follow. Rachel’s work was directly responsible for the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and inspired the environmental movement around the world.

-musical interlude-

C: This week we are super excited for our interview, we have a great interview with marine biologist Melissa Christina Márquez.

N: So on top op being a marine biologist Melissa is also the founder of the Fins United Initiative, which we’re going to talk about a little later, but just in general, she’s really passionate, she’s really excited about shark science, and we’re just really excited to share this interview with you.

N: Melissa, before we begin, we have one question for you, but do you where a lab coat?

M: It depends, actually, where I am. Most of the time no, but the lab coat that I do have actual says, like the little tab that says where it’s from, says Grey’s Anatomy, so it makes me feel really fancy.

N: (laughs) That’s amazing.

M: It’s great.

C: Top quality lab coat. Would you be able to briefly explain marine biology for us?

M: Yeah! So, basically marine biology is the study of the ocean, and anything marine in it. So, everything from it’s animals down to it’s plants. And it can also include some chemistry and some physics in there as well, but what I study is mostly the biology, which is sharks, for me. So I study Chondrichthyans which are the sharks, the skates, the stingrays and the chimeras, that’s their grouping. And I specifically study their migratory patterns and their habitat use, and also how the media portrays these animals and how that sways conservation efforts.

N: Oh! That’s really interesting.

C: That’s so cool.

M: It’s been interesting so far seeing how Jaws has kind of persuaded things to go one way, and how Sharknado 1 through, what is it now, 5, 6, is making people feel another way about sharks.

N: Mhm. So what’s a day in the life look like for you? What are you up to on a daily basis?

M: It kind of depends. Mostly I’m in front of my computer a lot, because I run the Fins United Initiative. So it’s doing blog posts about different sharks, skates, rays and stingrays a week, it’s doing interviews with different scientists around the world that study these animals. And if I’m not doing that, I’m usually at the aquarium that I work at, down here in New Zealand, and taking care of those animals there. And if I get really lucky and the weather’s not crap I get to go fishing for them too.

C: (laughs) Nice. That sounds like a great day in the life.

M: It’s a good life, I will say New Zealand definitely shows its Sub Antarctic-island feel when you’re out on the boat and you realize you should have worn more layers. But I can’t complain, I get to call the ocean my office, so can’t complain at all.

N: Yeah, that’s a pretty incredible office.

M: It’s pretty great, can’t complain.

C: What got you interested in sharks, specifically?

M: I actually started out really loving manatees, and I have a feeling Mom and Dad kind of wish I had stuck to that. I have – I kid you not – I have back at home like 13 manatee stuffed animals, and one of them, at one point was the size that I was, which is not that much bigger than what I am now. And, I don’t know, I guess I kind of switched from something big and cuddly, and nothing really eats it to deciding to go to the opposite spectrum and to be fascinated by sharks. When I moved over to the United States I wasn’t, it’s not that I wasn’t allowed to watch TV, it’s just that I couldn’t watch that much, and I flipped on to Discovery Channel, back in early 2000’s, and suddenly shark week was there, and I was just like “what is this?”. You don’t have that in Mexico.  So I’m just completely fascinated by it, and ever since then I’ve been hooked.

N: That’s awesome.

M: Yeah, it’s been pretty great.

C: Were you always interested in science in general, or was it your focus on manatees and sharks that brought you into science?
M: Funnily enough, it was the cartoon character Eliza Thornberry who got me interested in marine biology. I don’t know if you guys know what the show is, it’s from the Wild Thornberry’s, it was in the –

C: Yep

N: Yep

M: Ok, perfect. For those of you who don’t know, it was a show that was on Nickelodeon in the States. And I was really jealous of her ability to communicate with animals. Every time someone comes up with the question “what do you wish your superpower was”, that is what I wish my superpower was. And she got me interested in science, and travelling, and you know, really getting to know the animals on a different level. And then David Attenborough brought the actual scientific field to life for me. I’ve always been fascinated with the ocean, some of my very first memories are actually poking around in the tide pools in Puerto Rico, where I was born. So the ocean kind of cast her spell on me, and I’m A-OK with that.

C: I love that.

N: So what motivates your work currently as a scientist?

M: I think what motivates me as a scientist are my own personal values. And I want my science, and overarching, my science communication, to come from a place of meaning and intention. So, I love collaborating with organizations and people who’s values and research interests are a strong fit for both my lifestyle and also my own beliefs. So in my current role not only do I get to learn and educate others, but I also get to see the lightbulb go off in other people’s eyes, and watch them turn into educators themselves. It’s really interesting, going into classrooms and teaching kids about animals that in the beginning they were afraid of, and once we wrap up our session they’re just like “I didn’t know how cool and how misunderstood these predators are, I want to tell all of my friends”. And that just kind of makes it, I don’t know, worth it to me, for everything. And that really is what motivates me, is wanting everything I do, like not just to do it for publications or anything like that, but actually that I do it because I believe in it. My main motivation is to find my true voice, through all the distractions and comparisons. I mean, science can be very competitive. With not only grants, but just people in general.  And if I try to copy someone else it’s not going to come across as genuine, and people will see that. So, after all, people who are meant to be in your “tribe” will resonate more with you the more you are yourself, and so I think being myself and those true values that I hold, reflecting in my science, is what motivates what I do.

C: That’s a great reason.

N: That’s so wonderful. And I think that’s so great for the field of science, too, to have people like you, and to have people so passionate about being authentic and passing that on as you’re educating the next generation, that’s great, because that’s what the field needs. That’s amazing.

M: It’s something that I think everybody struggles with, not just the young people. I mean I know old people that struggle with imposter syndrome. And I mean, I have been in that boat, and I’m still sometimes in that boat, where you feel like, you kind of go into a room and you’re like what am I doing here, I’m not good at all. And I tried to be something that I wasn’t, for a really long time. And it wasn’t making me happy, it was causing a ton of stress, and when you kind of just let yourself be you, you attract the people that best fit what you are doing. And I think that’s the most important thing, like science, and to be honest, a lot of life, is a mindset of competition, and I’m trying to foster more of a sense of community within science, instead of competition. Because collaboration, I 100% believe is the way to go in science. That’s, I think how everybody is going to benefit in the future.

C: Yeah, for sure. On your journey to where you are right now, was there an influential person/theory/theorist in your field that helped you get there?

M: I think David Attenborough was definitely one of those people that every time I hear him I’m just like “wow, that is what I-” not aspire to be, but he’s definitely one of those role models of “oh my god, I wish I was in your shoes, just for a little bit”. But definitely Sylvia Earle and Dr. Eugene Clark are some supremely impressive role models as a female shark scientist. And I haven’t been lucky enough to meet Sylvia Earle yet but I did meet Dr. Eugene Clark before she passed away, and I kid you not, I was star struck. Like I couldn’t actually talk for the first little bit, because I was like “uhhhh”, and I almost – the words “I’m one of your biggest fans” almost blurted out of my mouth, but I kept it in. But she was such a nice person, and just getting to talk with her and chat with her was really, really nice. So, those two are definitely some really influential people in my field and we’re lucky to still have one of them around, and we’re lucky that Dr. Clark left such an impressionable legacy that people are still being influenced and inspired by her, even after her passing.

N: How have mentors helped shape your experience along your academic journey?

M: I have had a really strong support system in my family, my friends, and my colleagues, that have helped me, or helped lead me down a really good path to where I am today. The first bit of my marine science career I actually didn’t have many mentors because I was surrounded by men, and while they were really good influential people in my life, I didn’t feel like they really understood what I was going through. I’m lucky enough now that I’m chaning that and im surrounding myself with some really amazing women out in the field that are helping me, that I can turn to and say “Hey, I was wondering your thoughts about x, y z…”, and them giving me really good feedback on that kind of stuff. And all of these people; my friends, my family, my colleagues, the mentors I have now, have also allowed me to learn who I am by making mistakes. And what’s the best way to learn than by making mistakes?

C: That’s great. And its great that you have people who let you do that.

M: Yeah, and the good thing is also that I’m pretty hard on myself when I make mistakes, and they kind of ease off and are like, “listen, it’s ok, everyone makes mistakes, that’s how you learn”. And it’s wonderful. There’s a quote, and I forget who said it, but it was basically something of “you only fail when you give up, making a mistake is like finding x amount of ways that something doesn’t work” and I was like “oh my god, that’s brilliant”.

N: Mhm. Yeah, and that’s so relevant to science, right? That’s exactly what science is, and the whole idea that you need to be perfect to be a scientist is crazy

M: Yeah, it is something that I feel media in general has kind of just perpetuated that “I am perfect” image, whereas science isn’t perfect, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

C: Yeah. So if someone wants to get into marine biology or if they want to be extra cool and study sharks, what do they have to do?

M: My path is really different from my peers, who is different from their peers, there’s no set thing that people have to do in order to be a scientist. Do I suggest getting a degree in a scientific field and taking advantages of opportunities like internships and volunteering during volunteering? Yes. To make sure they know how to write well? Yes. I even suggest taking some sort of coding class, like R, to help them, because those are really big now a days, people are really using R or R GES to help out with their research. But I think for me, the only thing people really have to have be to get into this field is to be passionate about the work. You don’t get into marine biology or wildlife conservation or science communication about the money. For those in these jobs it’s not about the money, because we really believe in what we do. Life, a really full lifetime is so much more than just working, you have to enjoy what you’re doing. And I think the people that I know that are doing marine biology and science and likely the most passionate people I have ever met. And that’s so refreshing to surround yourself with people who are there because they love what they do. And I love public speaking, sicence and everything that goes along with it, and cultivating relationships, so it’s no surprise that I like what I do so much. So, I think the one thing people have to do, or have to have, is passion. And an insatiable curiosity to figure out more.

N: Aw, that’s so great. So what are your hopes for the future of women in marine biology?

M: I’m really trying to help women empower each other by fostering a sense of community over competition, like I said before. I’m outspokenly passionate about the potential of young women, especially Latina women. There seems to be a pretty big stereotype about Latinos and Latinas being lazy and not smart enough in order to do, you know, science. And I’m hoping that by trying to uplift those Latina women that are doing science, kids, especially little children, can see themselves up there, and be like “oh, look – if she’s doing it, I can do it”. I actually did a TEDx talk here in Wellington back in June about the importance of having women role models of diverse backgrounds, so everyone can see themselves doing science or doing what they want to do. When I was growing up, I didn’t have any Latina marine biologists to look up to, and to be honest today I still really don’t. There aren’t really all that many of us out there – or that I know of, rather. And so, trying to shine that spotlight so 7 year old kids now a days can look up and say “oh look, there they are” is something that’s really important to me. When you remove the anxiety and the fear of the ego and the competition, what we can do is from this place of having fun and have people reach their goals. And so I’m really hoping that women come together and help each other out instead of tearing each other down.

N: That’s so beautiful. Couldn’t agree more.

M: Yeah, it’s definitely, I think we can do some pretty amazing things if we all start working together and stop comparing each other to one another and you know its something I think we’re all going to struggle with for the rest of our lives, because it’s something that’s been engrained in us, but we can pass on better lessons to the younger generation and show them community over competition and show that we know were trying.

C: So, where can people find you on social media?

M: If you want to contact me you can reach out to me on Twitter @mcmsharksxx, or write me an email at Melissachristinamarquez@gmail.com. The program that I run, the Fins United Initiative also has a facebook page and an Instagram that you can follow.

C: Perfect, and we’ll link everything down in the shownotes.

–musical interlude—

C: Today, for our Opportunity for Future Women Scientists, we wanted to talk about the Fins United Initiative, which as we’ve already discussed, is created and run by Melissa!

N: The mission of Fins United Initiative is to provide easy to access information on all sharks and their relatives, worldwide, through partnerships with educational institutions and other programs.

C: Melissa was inspired to create the Fins United Initiative in 2013, by the lack of shark education and conservation integrated into school curriculums. So first it was called Sarasota Fins but she changed the name to the Fins United Initiative as the program grew.

N: That’s really cool. I wish that we had something like this when we were kids. The only thing I knew about sharks were from the movie Jaws, and I think I was terrified of them.

C: Really?

N: So, there’s lots of different ways that the Fins United Initiative provides information to these different audiences. There are easy to understand blog posts, infographics, handouts and more on their website. And they also do classroom visits, or if you’re not in the United States, google hangouts or skype-a-scientist situation.

C: So, they have different partnerships, but I think Nicole and I can agree that our favourite is with Keep Fin Alive to create The Little Fin Fighters.

N: (laughs), That’s so cute. And what did they say, they said “Fin Fighters, allowing for shark education to be led by even the littlest of environmentalists”. That’s adorable. They also have the Little Fin Book Club with a bunch of recommendations for some really great books online on their website, we’ll link it. But there are just so many, like Smart About Sharks, If Sharks Disappeared, just a bunch of picture books, and information for little kids.

C: And they have different lessons, depending on your grade level, depending on your interests, so from K all the way through grade 12. You can have someone come into your classroom and teach you about shark habitats, shark cannibalism, river sharks (so maybe we do have Canadian sharks?), you can even get a look at shark teeth.

N: That’s awesome. And it’s all free! They say online that it’s all free. The presentations are designed to show that science is “fin-tastic”. So that’s adorable. And I think we definitely heard in Melissa’s interview that she’s just super passionate about, you know, engaging the next generation to be excited, just like she is, about all of these really cool things.

C: So you can find all the links down in the shownotes, and make sure to visit the awesome website and look at all the amazing information they have.

Thank you so much for listening to the superwomen in science podcast!

N: Just a reminder that we’re reading from Rachel Ignotofsky’s book Women in Science

C: And a big thank you to our amazing guest Melissa Marquez.

N: Make sure to follow us on Soundcloud or itunes to hear our podcast every other week! So search us in the podcast section, download, rate, and subscribe!

C: You can find us on Facebook at Superwomen in Science Podcast and on twitter @ Superwomensci.

N: A transcript of this episode can be found on our website superwomeninscience.wordpress.com!

C: Tweet us if you’re a marine biologist  or if you want us to talk about your field of science!

Thanks again everyone!

-fade out, music, bloopers –


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