Melissa Christina Márquez loves being a champion for misunderstood creatures. She is a marine biologist and founder of the Fins United Initiative. She spends her days studying sharks and challenging preconceived notions. Melissa wants everyone to see beyond stereotypes, whether for her finned friends or her fellow women in STEM.
Melissa’s love of science started as a kid playing in the tide pools in Puerto Rico. It followed her through family moves around Mexico and the US. With her own mother being a scientist, Melissa never felt like her own interests were strange. That early support encouraged her to take chances. “I don’t think my mom ever told me, ‘no,” she said. “She told me to be careful, but never ‘no.’
When Melissa’s family was living in New Jersey, she had access to two important resources: the beach and American television. The beach re-ignited her love for ocean creatures. For a while she was obsessed with manatees. But it was her exposure to television’s Shark Week that laid the foundation for her favourite predator.
With her family’s encouragement, Melissa followed her passion to Florida, New Zealand, and even South Africa. Her studies took her both behind the desk and in the water. And in addition to a Master’s degree, Melissa has gained valuable insight into working with predators in their natural environment.It may seem like diving with sharks is about being brave, but Melissa knows it is about being prepared. In all of her many dives – even with Bull Sharks – Melissa has never felt scared. “I know that as long as I follow the rules, I should be okay,” she explained. Those rules include:
- stick with her dive buddy or group
- keep her hands close to herself
- leave any shiny jewelry in the boat
- avoid bright colors
- keep a constant eye on ALL the sharks
The last one may seem obvious, but sharks can sneak up on you. They can also show certain behaviors that tell a diver to back off. If a shark hunches its back or lowers its side fin, it’s time to give some space. But just as she warns against stereotyping sharks as vicious killers, she wants to remind people that sharks aren’t puppies either. Sharks deserve respect – and they deserve better than having the Jaws soundtrack play in the head of every person who sees them on video. “They are wild predators and I respect them,” Melissa said, “but I don’t fear them. I fear for them.” Right now Melissa is studying the ways people form perceptions about creatures like sharks in the first place. She wants to know how those perceptions then go on to affect attitudes about conservation efforts. Using powerful storytelling and even her own GoPro videos, Melissa has been introducing people to another side of the shark story. She said that all the facts in the world can’t get kids as interested as a close-up video.But stepping up to speak for sharks has made Melissa very aware of other stereotypes: those about women in STEM. Melissa is a young, female, and proud Latina scientist. And over the years, each of those three factors has given people a reason to create roadblocks or underestimate her. To clear the path for the next generation, Melissa is fighting to bring more leading research women into the public eye. Even her beloved Shark Week failed to highlight many women marine biologists. Melissa hopes that her work will take people beyond just learning about sharks and marine ecosystems. She wants them to ask what she considers the most important question: “How can I help?” Conservation goes beyond just believing that creatures are beautiful; it means finding a way to make a difference. And Melissa plans to make as many differences as she can. This article first appeared in Issue 03 (Jan/Feb 2018) of Smore.