The Story Of How I Became A Professional Marine Scientist

Shark Warrior In The Spotlight: Fernando Melendez

How to begin a career in marine conservation

Over the past five years we have hosted hundreds of participants from all over the globe and we are so proud to say that many have gone on to pursue a career in conservation and marine science.

Last week we caught up with Fernando Melendez who participated with us back in 2017 and has since flourished magnificently and accomplished his dream of becoming a professional marine scientist.

Every Day I Visited The Reef, I Saw Something Different

From a young age Fernando found himself fascinated by marine life. Being an only child with no peers of his own age to play with, instead he chose to spend his childhood in the ocean, exploring the underwater world and befriending the creatures that lived there.

“My parents bought me snorkel gear and fishing net, and every day I would go out and snorkel while trying to catch fish with my net. What surprised me the most was that even though I visited the same reef every day, each time I saw something different.

I remember seeing turtles, squids, flounders, barracudas, and many other animals. I quickly became entranced with the unique beauty of the ocean and ever since then (6 years old) the ocean and its inhabitants have inspired me to follow a career in Marine Sciences.”

Fernando focused on his studies and worked hard to gain the education required to achieve his dreams however he quickly realized that to successfully secure a paid position in marine science it was not just education that was essential but also experience working in the field.

 He figured out that in order to gain the experience necessary he would first need to participate with an organization that could offer him firsthand experience and training allowing him to learn and practice new skills to broaden his knowledge and employability in the future.

Knowledge vs Experience

“The main challenges in finding a paid position in Marine Conservation, and any other areas of Marine Sciences, I would say are all the situations you face at the initial stages of your career. Finding a place that would hire you with no previous experience in a field as competitive as Marine Conservation is a tough barrier to break. Once you work as a volunteer or as an apprentice in a Marine Conservation Program, you then need to show that you, not only participated in a program but that the skills you learned are particularly useful for the job you are applying.”

Finding The Right Organization To Gain Field Experience

Finding an organization where he could practice field work proved to be very difficult initially and Fernando experienced so much rejection that he even considered giving up altogether.

how to become a marine biologist

“During my undergrad tenure in college, I was constantly submitting applications to work as a volunteer on anything marine related. I applied to help local marine researchers with their investigations, applied to work as a volunteer on various aquariums and zoos; I even applied to work as a volunteer in a dive shop simply to learn more about diving.

Constantly I was either being rejected or being told that they were no longer looking for people, for four years I received rejection after rejection until one day, during my last semester as an undergrad I decided to give up on being a Marine Biologist. I could say that those times were the most challenging and uninspired points in my career. It truly felt as if a spark in my life had burnt out.

The thing that actually gave me hope and jumpstarted my desire to continue my career as a Marine Biologist was actually you guys, the Gili Shark Conservation Program. It was the first program to really give me an opportunity to go and experience the work I wanted to do since I was little. I remember applying to the program and saying to myself “if I get rejected here, I’ll take it as a definite sign that I’m not meant to work on Marine Conservation”.

A couple of months later you guys sent me the acceptance email and the spark was reignited again. So I can definitely say that you guys at the program were the ones who encouraged me to continue pursuing a career in Marine Conservation.”

How It All Started

Fernando joined our research team where he spent his days learning and enhancing his scuba diving skills while carrying out scientific diving to assist in a range of marine research methods each morning followed by assisting our lead scientist to input and analyze data in the afternoons.

He had finally been given the opportunity to become a valued member of a research team and although we were very sad to see him go, we were certain that he was going to become a great asset to the marine science world in his future.

Upon his return from participating with the Gili Shark Conservation project, things quickly started to move in an excellent direction for Fernando’s career. Not only did he start his Master’s in Marine Ecology, but he also managed to successfully find employment in marine science. On top of his work and studies, he also started to teach a lab course at the University of Puerto Rico.

“ Six months after I returned from the program, I started my Master’s in Marine Ecology at the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico. There I met a lot of likeminded students and professors who had the same passion for the ocean as I do. Talking to the professor in charge of the Experimental Ecology Laboratory, I shared with him the experiences and knowledge I gained during my participation in the Gili Shark Conservation Program. Hearing that I had experiences in diving, fish ID, and transect diving techniques, he quickly offered me the chance to work for a fish ID diving project ran by Isla Mar Research Expeditions in Puerto Rico. There, I had the opportunity to work with fellow lab member Manuel Olmeda, in organizing dives, performing fish ID transect dives, and analyzing the results for a project that focused on different methods of teaching fish ID to students who had little or no experience identifying fishes. During that project, I would say that my luck completely changed, with more and more work opportunities becoming available.”

Teaching Is A Work Of Heart

how to balance work and study

Fernando took on a role to help undergrad students find research opportunities as he wished to guide them in such a way that they did not have to face the rejection that he had during his time as an undergrad

“One of the most gratifying and fun experiences in my life has been teaching. Upon beginning my Master’s Degree I was offered a teaching assistantship to help fund my studies and my lifestyle.

I began teaching General Biology at different levels, with even having the opportunity to teach Human Physiology for a full year. I did all this while completing my Master’s studies and doing all sorts of marine-related jobs and experiments that came my way.

My friends and family can tell you that I am a very busy person, juggling work, studies, research, and social life can seem like a daunting task, but I can honestly say that I truly enjoy everything I do to a level that none of it feels like work.

I not only get to dive, generate new findings in the field of Marine Ecology, and teach undergrad students but also I have the privilege to serve as an example to my students on the importance of following your passion and dedicating your life to doing what you truly love.

I have two main reasons for taking on the amount of work I do, the first is my passion and general love for all that I do. The second is the constant hunger I feel for learning and for participating in any opportunity that comes my way. I spent years of constant rejection, and I used that as a fuel to motivate my desire to show the world how gratifying it is to do something you love and how important it is to never give up on your dreams.”

Fernando’s Most Significant Accomplishment

where to study marine ecology

Fernando has achieved so much over the last few years. We wanted to know what he felt was his most significant accomplishment of all;

The first one was having the opportunity to work in the fish collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History alongside the collection manager Diane Pitassy, while also getting the privilege to have one of the curators for the fish collection (Dr. Dave Johnson) in my graduate committee.

The second one I would say has to be being offered a Ph.D. student position in the laboratory of Dr. Dahiana Arcila at the University of Oklahoma working with a great group of students to understand more about fish evolution.

The third, and for me the most important one, has to be making my parents proud. They have been the main supporters of everything I do; I know for sure that without them I would not be half the person and professional I am. So finally being able to show them that all their hard work and support blossomed into a successful career truly is one of the most important achievements of my young career.”

How To Overcome Challenges

He faced many challenges, worked extremely hard, and gained a lot of valuable experience, peers, and success along the way. Today he is an accomplished young scientist with the drive to continue growing his knowledge and career in marine science. We wanted to know what Fernando would say to someone who is facing the same challenges that he once faced;

 “I would say, it only takes one opportunity, one moment, one experience to begin your career as a Marine Scientist. You could be rejected five, ten, one hundred times, but it only took one acceptance email to turn my life around. To any struggling young scientist or any person in general, that is about to give up on their dreams, my message would be “try one more time, and if that doesn’t work……well try again” because nothing comes close to the satisfaction of doing what you truly love every day. If you have the love and passion for your craft, the jobs will come, the money will come, the achievements will come, you just have to be willing to give it your all to make your dreams happen.” 

People tend to think twice when it comes to getting involved with conservation efforts and unfortunately undervalue the efforts being made around the world to protect our ocean and the environment. Fernando has some inspiration words to shed light on this;

becoming a scientific diver

“A lot of what we do in the field of Marine Science and Marine Conservation is often overlooked or categorized as non-essential by today’s society. My advice is to not listen to those people. What we do is key to maintaining balance in the ecosystem and the natural harmony between the human world and the animal world. Like any doctor, engineer, accountant, etc. we play a crucial role in the functioning of a system (in our case Marine Systems). The people I had the opportunity to work with both at the Gili Shark Conservation Program and every other Marine Sciences organization I have been a part of, are some of the most passionate, driven, and caring people I have had the privilege to be around with. Getting involved in Marine Conservation makes you part of a group of quirky, unique, and talented people who truly care about the oceans and all of the creatures that inhabit them. So if anybody reading this is thinking about a career in Marine Conservation, get ready for a very fulfilling career.”

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