— -- Staring down through the crystal clear blue water at the intricate coral reef below, Marirosa Molina was awestruck by this new world. Tropical fish of every imaginable color and sea turtles glided by, seemingly unaware of their teenage admirer above. "I felt like I was in another universe," she says of her snorkeling expeditions off Culebra Island, Puerto Rico (Isla de Culebra). "I was totally enchanted."
Almost 18 years ago, Molina left Puerto Rico for a job in Athens, Ga., but as the years passed she never forgot Culebra Island's magical undersea world. Those memories came back even stronger over the years as she learned that raw sewage and other pollutants were choking the life out of the rich ecosystem of this place she loved more than any other. When she heard that turtles who populated the waters were affected by unexplained warts and tumors that were covering their faces and bodies, she knew she had to act. "But how?" she asked herself. "If only I could do something."
Molina grew up in Caguas, Puerto Rico surrounded by animals. Her father, Luis, a district newspaper manager, was the kind of man who never hesitated to help someone in need and was constantly bringing home pets he received as gifts. There were dogs, cats, parakeets, ducks, hamsters, guinea pigs and even geese.
Even though a career as a veterinarian would have seemed like a natural for Molina, she was never certain of what she wanted do when she grew up. Her ideas ranged from a pediatrician to an engineer to an interior designer. One thing she knew for sure, especially as she got a little older, was that it had to involve giving back to the community, just as her father did. Luis took great pride in his Puerto Rican heritage and passed this passion on to Molina. "Never forget where you came from," he told her. "Respect it and work as hard as you can to make it a better place."
Shortly before finishing high school, Molina read about a new industrial microbiology program at the Mayagüez campus of the University of Puerto Rico. She had no idea what microbiology was but thought it sounded interesting. "I think I can do that," she said to herself after reading a description in an encyclopedia.
She enrolled in the program and after graduating she took a job with a pharmaceutical company monitoring quality control. But working for a big business left her feeling empty and unfulfilled. "I wasn't giving anything back," she recalls.
Molina learned that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was holding job interviews at the University of Puerto Rico. Molina went for an interview and was offered a job at the EPA office in Athens, Ga. as an environmental scientist. She took the job in 1990 and a year later, while still working at the EPA, she enrolled at the University of Georgia to earn a Masters degree in microbiology and later a PhD in ecology.
The university's ecology program placed a strong emphasis on conservation and while working on her PhD Molina became painfully aware of the harmful effects that pollution was having on Culebra Island's ecosystem.
Check out Selecciones to read more of Molina's mission to save the endangered green turtles.