Marine biologist hopes new children's book shows diversity of sharks and those who study them
Melissa Cristina Marquez spoke to ABC News' Phil Lipof.
Sharks may have a fearsome reputation thanks to portrayals in movies like "Jaws" and "The Meg," but a marine biologist is hoping to rewrite the narrative while also inspiring the next generation of scientists with her new autobiographical children’s book, “Mother of Sharks."
Melissa Cristina Marquez, a Forbes 30 under 30 honoree, melded important topics like conservation and diversity in STEM in the new book, which features a crab named Jaiba who gives a young girl named Meli a glimpse into the beautiful ocean and into her future.
Marquez spoke to ABC News’ Phil Lipof about why she believes it’s important to spread a message about the diversity of sharks and those who study them.
PHIL LIPOF: Let's start with the book. Jaiba takes us on a journey. What does Jaiba teach us about sharks here?
MELISSA CRISTINA MARQUEZ: Jaiba teaches us that the diversity of sharks is really important. You know, a lot of people, when they think of sharks, they think of great whites, tigers, bulls, hammerheads, all really cool, all really important species. But there's over 500 different ones. So he introduces us to a few of the ones you probably haven't heard of before.
LIPOF: Right, and I just think what's neat, as a person who grew up in the age of “Jaws,” that the way you do this book, it makes sharks relatable and not scary, which is obviously a good thing for children. I mean, you're a remarkable marine biologist. You've been a presenter on Shark Week. You're a regular contributor writing about sharks and conservation. So why a children's book for you this time around?
MARQUEZ: Children are the future and at that age they are starting to form their opinions about different animals. And so I thought, you know, kind of get in early, beat the “Jaws” sort of craze. And, you know, they're too young to watch “The Meg,” too. So, this is a great way of kind of just beating them before they see any of the scary stuff to kind of open them up to a little bit of awe about sharks.
LIPOF: And not for nothing, but I'm realizing that I was a bit too young to watch “Jaws” when I saw it for the first time.
LIPOF: Seriously, this book has some pretty serious wisdom and you write and we'll quote it: “Female researchers, especially those of color, are like female sharks lurking in the darkness…We're here, but no one is paying attention...We can't be what we can't see.” When did you realize that you're living a dream and that people who might be inspired who see you.
MARQUEZ: I was really young when I realized there weren't that many Latina marine biologists on TV, so I always wondered whether I could be that growing up. And so, once I got to college and I had little girls kind of reaching out to me through all the science communication channels that I had, being like, “Oh, I want to be you when I grow up.” I was like, “Oh, I have the chance to be what I wanted to see.”
And so, yeah, I think it's really important that this book not only highlights the diversity of sharks, but also the diversity of the people who study sharks and just showcases that there's so many people that you don't see on TV of different colors, of different backgrounds and genders that do study these animals in some sort of capacity.
LIPOF: And that's the beauty of it. The more we see it, the more we don't need to yearn to see it, which is great. What are some of the ways, in your opinion, STEM and conservation could do better in regards to diversity? Because oftentimes from the outside, it doesn't necessarily look diverse.
MARQUEZ: Yeah, that's true. I think probably one of the easiest ways that STEM could be better is that representation. So having people of diverse backgrounds and genders be in those leadership roles and have them be prevalent and visible in those leadership roles, because as you said, you can't be what you can't see. And so it's really hard to dream about having a job or holding a position if you don't even know if that's possible for yourself.
LIPOF: So the book is a great read for anyone, even if you are a bit afraid of sharks. What conversations, though, do you hope this book sparks between kids and parents?
MARQUEZ: I really hope it sparks the conversation that no matter where you're from, your dreams are valid and you can dream as big as you want. I'm from Puerto Rico. I'm from a small Caribbean island that, over here in Australia, people are like, “Oh, is that in Europe?” So I feel like if a girl from a small Caribbean island can do it, you can, too. And so, I hope it sparks this conversation about representation and diversity of not just science but also of sharks and showcases them in a different light that makes us think about them in a little different way.
LIPOF: Yeah, and you know what? That's a metaphor for how we should see people, right? That's an absolute metaphor.
LIPOF: Yeah, and it's a beautiful book. I have it. I don't have it in front of me, but we're going to show everybody. It's illustrated so beautifully. The colors are wonderful as well as the sentiment. Melissa Cristina Marquez, thank you so much for your time on this, your Saturday morning. Her book “Mother of Sharks” is available wherever books are sold.