Shark Week Presents: Melissa Marquez

Today on Shark Week Presents we’ve got another badass woman in shark science for you! Introducing Melissa Marquez, shark biologist, PhD student and podcaster. Keep reading to find out why sharks are a misunderstood predator and what it’s like to be bitten by a crocodile…

Hey Melissa, tell us a little about you and your relationship with the ocean!

Hi, my name is Melissa Cristina Márquez and I’m a marine biologist from Puerto Rico and Mexico who studies sharks and other their relatives (the skates, rays, and chimaeras—together this whole group is called ‘Chondrichthyans’). I am fascinated with the natural world– especially the ocean! I just wanted to learn more about it, and my first memories are exploring the tide pools in Puerto Rico. I’m still just as curious about the ocean today and that’s why I’ve dedicated my life to studying the animals in it.


So how did you get into working with sharks?

I pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Ecology and Conservation in the USA and this journey led me to pack my bags and move from Florida, USA to Wellington, New Zealand and get a Master’s degree in Marine Biology. I’m now starting my PhD at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia! I’ve always been in love with sharks and ever since I first got to work hands-on with them at the Bimini Biological Field Station in the Bahamas I’ve been hooked. This job has allowed me to travel all over the world to study sharks!


You’ve always had an interest in misunderstood predators and have said that sharks are the most misunderstood of all. What’s your role in changing perceptions about sharks?

People’s perception of a carnivore, like a shark, isn’t exactly the best. Many people think of them as “monsters,” or “man-eaters” and that just isn’t true! The large majority of people have a negative attitude toward sharks and I’m interested in learning why that is. Is it because of how sharks look? Is it because of how they are portrayed in movies or how the media writes about them? I’m a big fan of not only better protecting shark species with laws and policies but understand why people feel a certain way about sharks and having educational tools to show why the conservation of these animals is so important. It’s why I started “The Fins United Initiative.”

So, we just couldn’t resist bringing this up… you’re a shark scientist that got bitten by a crocodile! What happened?!

So this was over a year ago, and happened on last year’s Shark Week! We were in an archipelago off the southern coast of Cuba known as Jardines de la Reina. We were diving at night, and my full face mask started acting up during the dive, so I could only communicate with my hands. I stuck by one of our dive guides, and he motioned, “Hey, it’s time to go up,” and I gave him the OK sign. He starts going up, he crosses in front of me, and I don’t want his fins to hit me in the face so I wait two or three seconds. In those two or three seconds I suddenly felt really hard pressure on my leg. Suddenly I start getting dragged backwards and I quickly realized that the crocodile we had been filming with earlier had me. While that was happening, I tried to keep my leg really still so it didn't bite down harder and rip a chunk of my leg out, or worse, start rolling. If it started rolling, I would’ve been a goner. 

While I’m trying to figure out what next to do, it lets me go. I think it realized quickly, “This isn't something I want to eat.” No big fight, and thankfully I still have my leg. I go into more detail on a blog post on my webpage. I have a nice scar: an imprint of a crocodile jaw on the inside of my left leg, and two puncture wounds on the outside of my leg. 


You’ve recently started a PhD! Congratulations! What are you researching?

Thank you! I’m currently looking at habitat use of sharks in the Indo-Pacific region and perceptions of these predators in this region. I just recently started so I can’t tell you much else past that, haha.


You’re also featuring on Shark Week this year! Could you tell us a little about this?

Dr. Yannis P. Papastamatiou of Florida International University, FL (FIU) and I travelled to Isla Guadalupe, a volcanic island off of Mexico that is famous for the clear water and great white sharks there! We try to tag some of these HUGE great whites to see how they move within the water column and around Guadalupe. It’s got some really interesting results, so definitely tune in.


You’ve a keen interest in Women in Stem. What has your personal experience been as a woman in marine science?

 It can sometimes be very lonely work, depending on what field you are in. In the beginning I was shocked by how isolating some of the work can be, not just because we were in a remote area but because I was sometimes the only female! It has gotten a lot better, and thanks to social media I’ve been able to find a whole network of females who study Chondrichthyans (I did a whole TEDx talk about this) and I hope those interested in studying sharks can look up to these impactful women.


GOS is all about promoting diversity within ocean science. How can we ensure that women and minorities are well-represented in our field?

A continued effort must be made to shatter the glass ceiling. The first step towards making STEM an industry that allows for women to thrive in is recognizing there is a problem and understanding the role of implicit bias. Many people still think of a “scientist” as a male, and that just isn’t the case anymore. I believe more training and workshops must take place to counter this bias in STEM. One way of countering it is that the women who are in STEM must be highlighted and talked about in addition to the men we already discuss. Our children known about Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin but what about the women who made important contributions as well? Introducing them into our lives from a young age and continuing to showcase women today who work in these fields is important. Just how I believe that mentoring is important for those women in STEM. There is a need for more groups that encourage women to go into the STEM fields and help them with the obstacles that are in place.