Her first memories are of the beach, exploring tidal pools, turning over rocks to find animals hiding beneath. She collected shells and chased schools of fish in Mexico and Puerto Rico, where she grew up.
Melissa Cristina Márquez has been interested in the ocean from day one. “The Little Mermaid was the only movie to shut Baby Meli up when I was crying my eyes out in the middle of the night,” she says—at least according to what her father tells her. But she’s seen the video evidence as proof.
Today, you’re just as likely to see Melissa herself under the sea. She is a marine biologist and conservationist known as the “Mother of Sharks”—her expertise is in sharks and their relatives, which include skates, rays, and chimaeras.
Work in the watery world
No two days are alike for Melissa. On some mornings, she’s up early, drone in hand, going to a beach near her home in Western Australia to study sharks swimming offshore. On others, she’s at work behind a computer, analyzing data, applying for funding, performing science communication research.
And every single day, she’s excited by new nuggets of information and the ability to share them on a local and global platform. While filming sharks in Cuba for the Discovery Channel, Melissa was bitten and dragged by a crocodile—and used it as a teachable moment that the crocodile did nothing wrong. She gave a TEDx talk on “Sharks & Female Scientists: More Alike Than You Think.” She started a #STEMSaturdays segment with the organization femSTEM, and wrote a series of bilingual children’s books called Wild Survival. The first one, Crocodile Rescue!, was published in February.
Her podcast, ConCiencia Azul, interviews Spanish-speaking researchers on ocean-related topics, amplifying usually-unheard voices and highlighting some unique hardships Latin American countries face: poverty, government corruption, and lack of funding.
She gives virtual talks to classrooms of students through The Fins United Initiative (TFUI). Márquez started TFUI as a shark, skate, ray, and chimaera education and conservation program. To date, TFUI has connected with schools and other educational services in 12 countries worldwide, as well as all 50 U.S. states.
People tend to overgeneralize about sharks, she notes, despite the more than 500 species in the shark family worldwide. Each has a unique role in their environment.
Outside of work, you can typically find Melissa trying out new cocktails with friends in her backyard or road tripping across the Australian countryside. Or she’ll be at Ningaloo Reef, seeking enormous whale sharks, exploring the Omeo wreck right off Perth’s coast, or spotting cuttlefish, sea lions, and grey nurse sharks at Rottnest Island.
Challenges: past, present, and future
Melissa is a determined advocate for diversity and inclusion in the STEM fields. She says that she has faced racism, sexism, and ageism throughout her career.
She herself had an inspirational first role model: her mother worked as a biochemical engineer and a biology teacher.
“Women must be at the forefront to help save our planet,” says Melissa. “I think we will continue to see more and more women leaders in conservation as we move towards a more sustainable future.”
Melissa believes that implementing global-scale conservation practices requires understanding the needs of different nations.
She strongly feels that we have two options where the seas are concerned. If we continue “as normal,” oceans will be depleted of fish stocks and biodiversity, countries will lack food security, and people worldwide will struggle. Or we can act now to create a more sustainable relationship with our oceans.
“Will option two be tough at first?” she asks. “Sure. But worth it, in the short and long term."