Fashioning the Future With: Melissa Cristina Márquez
Chomping cheesecake! We've got shark scientist Melissa Cristina Márquez on the blog today — just in time for #SharkWeek. Melissa is a marine biologist and the founder of nonprofit organization The Fins United Initiative (TFUI), a group that provides resources and utilizes partnerships to educate people about sharks, skates, rays, and chimaeras. Melissa is also the host of ConCiencia Azul, a Spanish-language podcast featuring Latinx scientists and ocean experts, their work in conservation, and what challenges they face.
Melissa has written about her work for sites like Forbes, Lateral Magazine, and The Dodo. Plus, she's been featured by the BBC, Outside, Inverse, and many more. Melissa also gave an incredible TEDtalk which you can watch here:
Oh yeah, what was that we said about #SharkWeek, everyone's favorite summer celebration of our toothy, oft-misunderstood finned friends in the seas? Well, Melissa is featured in an episode for Shark Week called Great White Kill Zone: Guadalupe. You can watch it on the Discovery channel on Thursday, August 1st at 9:00PM EST! Last year, she was featured in a Shark Week episode called Cuba's Secret Shark Lair — during the filming of which she was bitten by an American crocodile. (You can read her account of the harrowing tale here.)
With all of the amazing work she does for sharks — plus all of her #SciComm related to ocean conservation and her unwavering passion despite a chilling experience — it's no wonder why Melissa is often referred to as the "Mother of Sharks."
We asked Melissa all about sharks including what her favorite shark is, what her forthcoming children's book will be about, what it's like to be a science communicator who does amazing outreach work, and more. Meet Melissa Cristina Márquez, the Mother of Sharks!
When did you know you were a scientist?
I think I always felt like I was a scientist. I was constantly questioning the observations I made in the natural world, especially our oceans, but I didn’t formally introduce myself as “marine biologist” until I graduated with my bachelor’s degree.
What originally drew you to studying Marine Ecology & Conservation?
I grew up on the beaches of Puerto Rico, harassing hermit crabs and telling tourists to watch out for sea urchins in the tide pools. It’s in my blood... I’ve always been intertwined with our oceans.
Do you have a personal philosophy as a science communicator & advocate for the oceans?
Not really — I just try to make sure my message is inclusive to all when it comes to how we can help our oceans out.
What do you love most about sharing your knowledge as a leading scientist with the public?
I love seeing peoples' faces mix with awe and understanding. When they come up to me afterwards divulging they didn’t know about “x” until I taught them, it makes me happy to know they walk away with new knowledge they can share with family and friends.
Is there one ocean or shark fact that particularly blows your mind?
The fact we have over 500 species of sharks and are still discovering new species blows my mind every time. Many people don’t know this, either, and just think of great white sharks or bull sharks or hammerheads when I say “shark.”
What inspired you to found The Fins United Foundation?
While I was going to school in Sarasota, Florida, I realized people were disconnected from the wildlife in Sarasota Bay. During that time, I self-published a book on sharks, skates, and rays in Sarasota Bay and a teacher asked me to give a talk to the kids. I realized there was a big gap between the education system and the environmental 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.
The Fins United Foundation is concerned with sharks, skates, rays, and chimaeras. What is the relationship between these different animals, and what shared plights do they face?
They are all related! Sort of like cousins. Collectively called Chondrichthyans, the main threats to these animals are overexploitation through targeted fisheries and incidental catches (bycatch), followed by habitat loss, persecution, and climate change.
Do you have a favorite kind of shark?
The tiger shark! Galeocerdo cuvier.
What do you love most about sharks?
How charismatic they are when you are in the water with them. Some are shy, some are super bold, and it’s interesting to see their interactions. It’s like an extreme version of people watching to me, haha.
What advice would you offer to people who are afraid of sharks?
That I understand and respect their fear, as it is their right to feel and think the way they do. But I would also ask them to put the fear aside and look at the statistics at how unlikely it is for them to ever be bitten by a shark.
We can’t wait for your Shark Week episode. Can you give us a taste of what to expect?
I can’t give too much away, just that we are in Guadalupe Island studying great white sharks there! It was an amazing experience to see great whites in that unique environment.
What advice do you have for young people who want to go marine biology?
For the good or the bad, you need to be passionate about what you are doing. Nobody goes into science just to get rich. Don’t let people rain on your parade when it comes to your dreams!
What do you love most about creating awesome ocean-inspired SciArt?
Just the satisfaction that comes from creating a new piece and debuting it! It’s a hobby for me… stress relief, if you will. It allows me to escape into my mind and for that I’m grateful.
Can you talk a little bit about your upcoming children's book?
All I can say is that it’s about a Latinx family who does worldwide wildlife conservation. It’s going to have species profiles, teach readers Spanish, and allow people to meet animals they may or may not know!
Who (modern day or historical) inspires you?
People like David Attenborough, Sylvia Earle, and Eugenie Clark are big role models I’ve looked up to. Now, while those three have been instrumental to my pursuing of marine biology, I also have colleagues that I also look to as role models.
What does Hollywood/TV get most wrong about sharks? Most right?
They rarely get things right about sharks sadly, because they tend to focus on the fear factor that sharks bring. This is especially true regarding “rogue sharks,” or sharks that have an appetite for humans. I wrote about this very thing for Forbes, actually!
Do you have any favorite fictional STEM (or specifically marine biologist or shark-related) characters in books/movies/other art forms?
I grew up watching The Wild Thornberrys on Nickelodeon and loved Eliza’s family. The fact that she got to talk to animals made me super jealous, too, because I wish I could do that with sharks! Ask them where they go and why they go there...
What hobbies do you enjoy in your free time?
I love hiking, scuba diving, running, and if I’m not doing any of those, I’m probably reading a book. Most likely a travel book, haha.
If you were a superhero, what would your go-to wearable tech device be?
Definitely night vision goggles!
Where can people find you online?
Fins United Initiative
ConCiencia Azul Podcast