Sharks have taken marine biologist and alumna Melissa Marquez around the world, into living rooms and all over social media. And the journey began at New College.
Born in Puerto Rico, and raised in Mexico and Florida, Marquez has been fascinated with sharks since she was a little girl. She brought that interest to New College, where two Independent Study Projects (ISPs) took her to a shark lab in the Bahamas and a shark-tagging research mission off the coast of South Africa.
“I got an educational experience that a lot of people dream about,” Marquez said.
That undergraduate experience led to a master’s degree program at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and a doctoral program at Curtin University in Australia. While at Victoria, Marquez gave a TEDx lecture entitled, Sharks and Female Scientists: More Alike Than You Think, which wove together both the public’s misperception of sharks and its tendency to overlook female scientists. That caught the eye of a producer at Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, and landed her a starring role in a 2018 episode (which showed Marquez being bitten by a crocodile), as well as another segment in 2019.
“I do what I do because I love my job and I love the animals I work with,” Marquez said. “I think they’re important, and it saddens me that a lot of people think of them as these monsters and they aren’t.”
Throughout her career, Marquez has written informational guides and children’s books on sharks, most of which are available in English and Spanish in her Internet project, The Fins United Initiative. Born at New College as Sarasota Fins, the project draws tens of thousands of page views every month.
Marquez also has a Spanish-language podcast on marine conservation, a regular writing gig with Forbes.com, and an impressive Twitter following. She has spoken in more than 20 countries and assists conservation programs with their social media efforts. Marquez admits to being a bit surprised by the success of it all.
“I never thought I would be in this sort of place of being an inspiration or being someone who is at the table so vocally,” Marquez said with a laugh. “But I guess I’m not 100 percent surprised because I’m Latina and we’re quite loud and we want to make our voices heard.”
Marquez is as proud of her work as she is of her heritage. In her TEDx talk, she discussed how she never knew any Latina marine biologists growing up, so she became her own role model.
“I realize I’m now in a position to be the role model I wished I had when I was seven years old,” she said. “I’m hoping that someone out there can see themselves in me and say, ‘She did it. I can do it. If she’s doing it, I will do it.’”
Marquez said that hope has been coming true.
“I have been written to by a lot of Latina women and other minorities when they see my work or see me on TV, thanking me for my work,” she said. “I always end up crying because it is so heartwarming to see that my visibility is making a difference.”
Marquez has recently been concentrating on her doctoral research—an interdisciplinary project examining sharks’ use of their habitat (as well as the roots of human attitudes toward sharks and how it affects conservation and management strategies).
It was her work at New College that set the stage for this type of unique research, she said. She had the academic freedom to develop a course with now-emeritus biology professor Elzie McCord Jr., Ph.D.; to travel for two ISPs; and to ultimately create the career path of her dreams.
“If you had told 7-year-old me that this is where I was going to be, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she said. “But I’m really happy that the hard work I’ve put in has paid off, to be where I am today, and to not only be an inspiration for change but to be a voice out there trying to get change to actually happen.”