Hello to all my Ocean fanatics!
My name is Melissa Sanchez, I am currently completing my senior year of undergraduate studies in the Marine Science department at the University of Connecticut (UCONN) Avery Point campus. My life has continually exposed me to setbacks and failures. Instead of spending these moments agonizing over the past, I now use this time to re-strategize for whatever it be I need to improve in order to succeed. My dyslexia and ADHD came at the high price of what I believed I was capable of. At a young age, the beach was where I confided in, a place to sit and reflect. Spending the majority of my life frequently visiting the beach allowed me for deep reflection. After understanding, you create your own reality and it begins with your mindset, unlearning the way I perceived myself to be has been the real challenge. Picking a career in STEM where I am a minority, a woman, and have learning disabilities has taught me that despite the challenges I am facing, others are also experiencing their own individual challenges. Learning to deal with these challenges appropriately is the secret weapon.
I now understand that challenges do not go away with time. It is only through facing challenges head-on that one can reflect. Challenges are the only way one can evolve and continue to break boundaries despite any of the hardships involved in doing so. It is because of this new mindset that I now love challenging myself. I am currently on track for completing a minor in chemistry, an accomplishment I would have never believed achievable if it had not been for my transformative mindset. Becoming a part of the MISS community has been a reminder that there are many who believe in breaking barriers and change for the better by being that change! MISS is exactly the community that I have been searching for, a place where despite everyone’s different journeys, we are committed to equity and change in the science community by demanding it (we rock!). Representing minorities in STEM is becoming more the norm thanks to our power standing together, and to organizations and companies that actively create
more opportunities in the research community. Forming communities where women stand tall and strong together is why I had the opportunity of working with Great White Sharks. I have spent the month of August Summer 2021 located in Mossel Bay, South Africa completing my internship with Oceans Research on Great White Sharks. My time here was occupied by conducting shark assessments, fin cam analysis, and assisting Luca Caracausi, an Italian Master's student obtaining tissue samples for isotopic analysis on the famous endemic Pyjamas Shark ( Poroderma africanum)! In total, we recorded data on 55 pyjamas, 91 whites, and saw over 100 whites! One of my most memorable days was when we got to tag whites. This was not an easy task as anyone who has worked with sharks can testify, as quickly as they make an appearance, is also as quickly as they can make their exit. Witnessing how important collaboration is within crew members and how this inherently ties to the contribution for collecting data on a long-term population dynamic study is incredible! I came here ready to be taken away by the elegance of the Great White Sharks. What I did not anticipate was how phenomenal the collaborators, staff, and other MISS intern who accompanied me, Sharleen Muñoz are. Wow, what an incredible group of individuals to work aside by, their dedication, commitment, and passion speak volumes!
Not much of my interest has changed since I was a child, instead, I have had the opportunity and honor to watch myself complete milestones to a dream I had growing up. I believe changing this world perspective to place conservation as a priority is achievable only with establishing communities such as Oceans Research and MISS where their sole intention is to continue to push individuals towards reaching their goals through furthering research and educational opportunities. When organizations can collaborate as demonstrated now the possibilities become endless. Oceans have reinforced this is exactly what I’d love to dedicate the rest of my life to. Thank you MISS for allowing me to feel a sense of belonging and power. I am honored to be one of the 1st as well as youngest MISS fellow! I cannot help but shed a few tears
knowing I actively contributed towards future Great White Sharks studies! This is not the end of my journey but the beginning of my contribution towards Ocean Conservation.
A special thank you to the 4 awesome creators of MISS, your decision to pick me as a MISS fellow has made an imprint on me, I cannot wait to see what else MISS will accomplish!
"Finally! I finally finished! I can't believe I did it!! I can't believe I graduated...But, now what do I do?" These were my thoughts when I finally finished my undergrad. I've been dreaming of going back to school for so long and now that I finished, I had no idea what my next step or what my next goal was going to be.
My journey is what some may call as non-traditional. I didnt go straight into a 4 year university after high school, instead, i went to community college and worked part time. After a while, I decided to take a break from school to work full time and eventually the idea of returning to my studies was put on the back burner.
After a couple of years, I finally decided that enough was enough, and sent in my university application. Now, not everything was rainbows and lollipops. I experienced a lot of imposter syndrome throughout my undergrad! I had a lot of self doubt, I started to question my capabilities, and unfortunately, I started to compare myself to other students. I felt that as an older student, I struggled to keep up with all of the younger, straight out of high school students. There were days where I felt that all my passed knowledge and qualifications were not good enough.
These exact feelings of self doubt returned when I applied for the Oceans Research internship. As I was filling out the application, I kept thinking, "it would be amazing to be chosen, but I know there's better qualified individuals out there who deserve this opportunity more than me!"
Just before the interview, I remember feeling excited, nervous, and anxious. I couldn't believe I was going to talk to the founding members of MISS. I remember getting all gitty to talk to them about my experience and about myself. But, once again, those feelings of not being good enough kept echoing in my head. After the interview, I remember feeling relieved but at the same time, i kept thinking I could have done better, or that my answers weren't good enough.
I actully felt that I bombed the interview (again, good ole imposter syndrome doing its thing). So, imagine my surprise and shock when I recieved the congratulations email of getting chosen to participate in this amazing opportunity. I don't think words can even describe how I felt at that moment. I remember I kept re-reading the email every morning, going over it multiple times. I just couldn't believe I was chosen! I couldn't believe that I going to be working with professionals already in the field of marine biology.
So by this point, im sure we have figured out my pattern of having an amazing opportunity presented to me, followed by our good friend imposter syndrome. So, without further ado, cue yet another imposter syndrome moment. Thats right folks, once again those feelings of self doubt and incompetence were front row and centre.
I was very nervous and yes, I was very worried that I wouldn't have the capacity required to perform well in the field. In the beginning, I felt as if they were going to see right through me and for some reason come to the conclusion that I didn't belong.
Nonetheless, as the days passed and as I acquired new skills, I slowly but surely started to overcome that fear of not being enough. I started to get confidence in myself and in my abilities. With every question answered and with every mistake I made, a valuable lesson was learned. Everyday we were challeneged with a task, and everyday I saw myself grow more and more confident.
These new skills and adventures further cemented the passion that I have for marine biology. This experience has reinforced that this is indeed the path that I want to continue on and that not even my self doubt will impede me from accomplishing my goals.
This summer working with MISS, New College Florida and Havensworth Coastal Conservation was one I will never forget. As someone without a support system when it comes to education and my career it was incredible to meet people like me who also love and work with sharks. The relationships built this summer will stay with me forever and help me feel more confident moving forward in shark science. I met so many talented and amazing women in science and it was so inspiring. My first day on the boat was so surreal and it really never stopped. I would catch myself thinking “how did I even get here?” on almost every trip out on the water. Every day on the boat and in the lab was a dream. Sure yeah, sometimes waking up at five am was a little tough but it was always worth it. I loved setting lines, gill netting not to mention working on a team of all women most of the time. It’s not all sharks though, there is bait cutting,stinky little catfish and lots of hard work. While we surveyed this summer we saw and worked up several species of sharks and I even started to be able to identify them in the water. One of my favorite days was when unexpectedly we caught one nurse shark and two hammerheads all over five feet long. Seeing them up close was breathtaking and unreal. All summer we mostly worked with juveniles so this was an opportunity to not only see larger sharks but learn the skills required to gather data from them as well. Overall I learned more than I could have imagined and am so excited to see what the future brings for me in shark science. Also while in Florida, I got to work with children in outreach programs with MISS and that was also just a mind blowing experience. What I would have given to see someone like me do something I loved would have been monumental in my childhood. It still is monumental when I see it as an adult, in most of my classes I’m one of a few bipoc students. I was in amazed all summer with how smart and strong these women are, I was constantly in awe and telling everyone I knew how great they were. Breaking barriers and helping others all while maintaining their own lives. You can have what you want, do what you want and still achieve your dreams. MISS is truly a one of a kind organization making dreams into reality. Working with and seeing BIPOC in shark science has truly been one of the highlights of my life and I can’t wait for more.
The first thing I thought when I got the email that I had received a MISS fellowship to support my Shark research internship was “things like this do not happen to people like me”. Then there were tears of joy and thoughts of “how am I going to do this?” but the common refrain of “I can not believe I am getting this opportunity” repeated through my head all summer. I could not believe that someone saw my story - my history - and gave me this opportunity.
I am what is frequently now called a non-traditional student. In my case, this means euphemistically “mature”. I grew up in a time before social media. I was born to an African immigrant father and a white American mother and lived in a suburban town that did not match the diversity of the surrounding bay area. I did not see a space for a girl who looked like me in science – especially not shark science - so I chose another route. I grew up, went to college, got a degree in the liberal arts, moved away, and found my way to the healthcare field where I worked for 10 years before having my son. I watched as the world changed. I had fallen in love with the ocean as a young girl and through connections and education I learned more about what was happening to it because of human activity. I grew angry and concerned for the world I was leaving my son. In the meantime, visibility of women in science had increased. I could see myself becoming a voice for the planet. I started taking courses at ASU and then the world shut down. Being cooped up in my house, with my son, knowing I had just started my new direction was frustrating. However, this lockdown proved to be transformative for my directional path. In this time, I discovered MISS.
MISS was created by four women who – when they did not see a space for themselves – created their own space. Then found each other and decided to create space for other women of color in their field. I discovered them via social media and when I learned of an opportunity to pursue shark field research – I sent in my application – still thinking “things like this do not happen to people like me”. Some weeks later I got my acceptance email and the offer of the MISS fellowship and found myself on a shark research boat in the Gulf of Mexico.
Every day was different. On boat days, my co-fellow Aneysa and I would wake up, get ourselves some caffeine and “boat food” and get ourselves to New College where we would load up the gear for the day either onto our New College boat or into the New College truck. If we were working out of Sarasota Bay, it was straight onto the boat. When we worked out of Terra Ceia Bay and up into Manatee River, we drove our gear to the dock of the co-sponsor of our internship – Havenworth Coastal Conservation. We hauled fishing gear, bait and food coolers, equipment to take water chemistries as well as tools and instruments we would need in the field to measure and workup any elasmobranchs or teleosts that we caught. Some days we were successful – almost too much so on one day when we caught two separate schools of fish. One of cownose rays and one of crevalle jack which in addition to some various other species added up to over 100 total animals in one net. Other days were not. During the summer there was a bloom of Karenia brevis leading to a red tide event. The bay lost a lot of sea life during this time and seeing it firsthand was an educational event all on its own.
I gained knowledge about fieldwork and marine science in general this summer. But I also gained so much more. I gained invaluable experience in a time when it seemed that would be impossible. And the most important thing I gained this summer was confidence. Not just in myself as a woman of color scientist going forward, but confidence in my place in the scientific community and knowing that I belong here and that I have the support of all the members and supporters of MISS.