Opportunity’s Keeper: My Journey into Oceanography - Gabriela Negrete-García

My interest in the ocean began the day I took my first trip to the sea at six-years-old. I remember waking up early to gather seashells along the beach and eagerly asking my mom how the shells ended up on the beach and why the ocean was so large. But I never would have imagined where I would be 19 years later. My name is Gabriela Negrete-García, I am 25 years old, and I am currently a 2nd year PhD student in Biological Oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

I was born in Mexico and lived there until I was 11 with my mother, my sisters, and my grandparents. Ours was a supportive household where I was taught that education was my biggest priority, and that I was valued and powerful enough to do anything that I set my mind to. In fact, my father worked tirelessly in the U.S. and sent most of his salary to allow my sisters and I to attend a private school in Mexico. My parents’ economic obstacles prevented them from attending school themselves and fueled their desire to ensure that we would never have to have such circumstances. My mom was unable to attend school past 6th grade because she had to help my grandparents around the house, and my dad moved to the U.S. right after high school to support my grandparents and allow his sisters to attend university. Their work ethic and passion for a better life motivated me to value all of their hard work and appreciate every opportunity coming my way.

Fourteen years ago, my father accomplished his dream of having his family in one place and brought us to the U.S. as new citizens. We moved to Seymour, Wisconsin, a very small town where we stood out as the only Latinx and immigrant family. In a region where the only knowledge of Hispanics or immigrants was rooted in stereotypes, I was treated very differently. Suddenly, being Latina was my only identifier. My inability to speak English made things worse because I had trouble getting anything out of my classes and I could not defend myself from insults. However, I recognized the sacrifice my parents faced in emigrating to a country where they were not accepted, solely to provide me with a life of opportunities that weren’t available to them. Therefore, in spite of the challenges I encountered, I decided early on to not concede, and instead I fought to show people that I was more than just a set of labels.

Along with the tremendous support I received from my family, there were a few educators that believed in me and gave me confidence to accomplish my dreams. Mr. Potter, my sixth-grade science teacher, gave me the Spanish version of the science textbook that everyone was using. He wanted me to continue learning regardless of my inability to read or speak English. Throughout the year, he made me feel included in every activity and tried his best to explain concepts so I could understand them. Since then, math and science became my favorite subjects. In Mexico, my interests differed; I adored my Spanish and history classes. However, my sudden inability to comprehend history and English focused my attention on classes that I could understand. Therefore, throughout high school, I took advantage of advanced chemistry and math courses, and was even allowed to take an online class in marine biology and oceanography. After high school, I had the opportunity to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a Chancellor Scholar because I had strong grades. This led to a fully funded tuition scholarship.

Even at this enormous university, I was one of the only Latinx individuals in any of my classes. It is difficult to be a first-generation college student and to not be surrounded by students or professors that look like you. The lack of representation, especially in my STEM courses, made me feel very out of place and question my abilities and accomplishments. This starvation for support and representation made me seek out programs such as McNair and the Chancellor Scholarship program, both of which pushed me to fight through these obstacles and become the representation that I wish I had. I graduated with a degree in Chemistry and took advantage of every possible opportunity to learn about the ocean, pursuing courses in environmental studies and environmental science. The more I learned in these courses, the more interested I became in chemical processes in the environment, especially the impact of fossil fuels on our oceans. I realized the importance of understanding how climate change will affect our oceans, not only in changing its temperature, but the greater implications such as sea-level rise, since it will disproportionately affect low income communities, fisheries and polar ecosystems. And finally, how these changes have already been seen and will continue to affect younger populations.

My curiosity and admiration for the ocean inspired me to search for faculty at the university who conduct research in ocean chemistry. I walked into Dr. Galen McKinley’s office asking for an opportunity to learn more about her field and left as a student research assistant. Coming in, I was not sure what my motive was or how working in her lab would help me in the future, but I knew that I wanted to learn more about the ocean. This experience taught me the foundational principles of research: learning, sharing, and communicating knowledge. My main project consisted on exploring the attenuation of particulate organic carbon in oxygen-deficient zones of the ocean. I learned great skills from this project, but I wanted to learn more about climate change and how it leads to ocean acidification. Because there were no other people at the university that worked on this topic, Dr. McKinley pushed me to apply to summer research programs to learn more about oceanography. She taught me about PhD programs and told me that these research programs could benefit me if I wanted to continue in the field of oceanography after graduation.

I was delighted to be accepted to the Summer Student Fellowship program at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) that summer. Under the supervision of Dr. Scott Doney and Dr. David Glover, I investigated the impacts of water quality on ocean acidification along Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. I was able to take part in collecting water samples and analyzing them for dissolved inorganic carbon, alkalinity, and dissolved oxygen. My analysis demonstrated that non-point source pollution carried from the watersheds of Buzzards Bay has highly impacted coastal water quality and has led to increases in local ocean acidification. These findings are significant because they suggest that coastal communities exposed to high nutrient runoff from land may be more vulnerable to ocean acidification.

The next summer, after applying to more summer programs, I was accepted to participate in the Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS) program and worked under the supervision of Dr. Nikki Lovenduski at the University of Colorado-Boulder. I assessed the present-day vulnerability of the Southern Ocean with respect to acidification using carbonate chemistry observations collected on repeat hydrographic cruises. That winter, I graduated from UW-Madison, and moved to Colorado to continue working on my summer project. I found that the Southern Ocean was projected to become acidified much sooner than expected, which will highly affect organisms in the ocean that build shells, including some shrimp, lobsters, and corals. This project was published this past year in Nature Climate Change.

I am currently a second-year PhD student studying Biological Oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Using climate models, I research how phytoplankton communities in the Arctic will change due to climate change. This is very important since phytoplankton are the main primary producers in the oceans, and any changes in their communities can greatly impact the whole marine food web. My academic career was made possible because I chose to take advantage of every opportunity given to me through education, a chance no one else in my family was granted. My success would not be possible without the support of my family and every mentor and program that has believed in me. Because I recognize the role the undergraduate research programs have played in my success, I am committed to lifting others while I climb in my academic career. I want to be a resource for other underrepresented and disadvantaged undergraduate students who are pursuing STEM research, especially women. I also hope to bring about awareness in my community of the effects of climate change on marine organisms.

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