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.
By Candace Narvaez
The sound of my alarm stirs me from a deep sleep. I groan and turn over, sleeping the alarm for just a few more minutes. Once its 7:30 am, the banging on my door reminds me that the day has begun. I spend the last thirty minutes until the work day begins getting ready before heading out to personal duties at eight o’clock. I grab the Windex, or on some days a broom, and head out to the truck, three other volunteers joining me at the truck while everyone else heads to dock to check the boats and lines. Once personal duties are done, we all head inside for morning meeting, where we get our itinerary for the day before breaking off into our respective groups. No matter what, we pack the same standard dry box every time we go out on the boats and then add in specific items depending on the activity. Today is no exception since we’ll be trolling out towards North so we pack the dry box, grab the trolling rods, make our field lunches, and head out on either one of the skiffs or on one of the twenties. Out on the water, I’m not sure what to expect since I’ve never been fishing before coming to Bimini, especially not off the stern of the boat. One of the long term volunteers patiently explains how one rod sets their line farther from the boat while the other line sets closer to the stern so that the two lines don’t get tangled, keeping an eye out for the silver spoon attached at the end. After just a few minutes of waiting, my rod bends towards the water, indicating a fish is hooked. I reel in quickly and scream in excitement when I see a decent sized barracuda on the end, not expecting to catch a fish on my first try. We spend the rest of the day taking turns fishing before returning to the lab for End of Day, which consists of daily lab maintenance tasks, with our haul. The work day ends once dinner is finished and it takes everything in me not to immediately crash in my bed, excited to start another day.
I decided to apply for the MISS Fellowship because I’d hoped to meet others like me, people who are passionate about science and research, while also wanting the opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge on conducting shark research, particularly field techniques, and open myself up to learning new and novel skills.
Growing up, it was difficult to find a strong sense of community, especially because I never felt like I truly fit into either the Hispanic or American communities. I was a hybrid of cultures in a society that pressured singular identities and I always felt like my mixed upbringing prevented me from assimilating one way or the other. I wasn’t a true Latina because I couldn’t speak Spanish or didn’t have stereotypical Hispanic qualities yet I also wasn’t a true American because I’d grown up influenced by a foreign culture, eating Hispanic foods and identifying with many Spanish core beliefs. It wasn’t until I was in college, where POC were few and far between, that I realized just how important representation and community are, especially when it comes to a future career.
My greatest fears and challenges going into my internship were mainly racial and gender based. As many people of color can attest, it is virtually impossible to progress in STEM as a person of color without experiencing some level of discrimination, harassment, or mistreatment based on your ethnic identity. Add gender into the mix and the treatment you can face changes dramatically. I have often been treated as less than simply because I am a woman, my thoughts and opinions dismissed or second-guessed no matter how insightful or valid they were, or blatantly disrespected because I’m Hispanic. These situations are so frustrating and exhausting because they happen so often that it can be discouraging. However, one of my favorite aspects of my internship experience was the genuinely warm and welcoming atmosphere created by staff and all of the other interns. My fears of discrimination and mistreatment were immediately eased the second I met the other new volunteers but even more so my first day at the lab. Everyone was so nice and patient, answering question after question without ever once changing their warm tone or making me feel bad for not remembering everything. I have never felt more welcomed or accepted than I did in Bimini, surrounded by truly inspiring people who loved research as much as I do and who I am proud to call my friends.
Alongside my friends and colleagues, I was able to learn and grow in ways I had never expected. When applying for the MISS fellowship, I had shared that one of my greatest weaknesses was asking for help, even if I really needed it. However, at the Shark Lab I realized that not only could I ask for help, but I could rely on those around me time and time again. Everyone was so willing to help each other to the point that I didn’t even have to ask for help before someone was stepping up and offering themselves. It was such a wonderful feeling being able to turn to anyone and find endless support. I think there’s something about the Lab that brings people together like nowhere else. You form such strong bonds with each other very quickly that it’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t been here. Maybe it’s because you spend all your time together, sharing meals together, learning and growing together, that you’re able to get far closer than you would under more normal circumstances. Through this experience, I learned what it means to work in a healthy and happy work environment, what it feels like to be accepted for who you are, and how something as seemingly small as grabbing a cereal container for someone else can make all the difference.
That’s why my favorite part of this experience was the people. Meeting all of my friends and interacting with the staff made my days happier and work lighter. We always worked as a team and supported each other, excitedly volunteering for even the most messy or tedious of tasks. Additionally, I loved our group discussions because we really listened to each other and respected and appreciated any differences. All of this allowed me to see research from so many different perspectives and interests that it really broadened my perspective on fields of study that I would have never considered or known existed, such as the impact of anthropogenic sounds on shark behavior. Before, collaborating with others has always been one of my favorite aspects of scientific research, but it wasn’t until I came to the lab that I saw what true collaboration looks like. Its kindness, reliability, trust, and patience—things I’ll carry with me, for the rest of my life.
In conclusion, it has been incredibly inspiring and empowering to be the first of many MISS fellows at the Shark Lab, where I will get to see myself being represented in shark sciences every single day and where I have not only been accepted but rejoiced for who I am.