Alejandra Morales Mérida
Biologist Researcher & Professor
Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala
And - Researcher, Université Paris-Saclay
No matter how crazy your dreams and ideas might sound to others, fight for what you want because if you work hard it’s possible.
WHAT DO YOU DO?
I study sea turtles and the evolutionary mechanism called Temperature-Dependent Sex Determination, which is a physiological trait found in many reptiles, in which the incubations temperature determines the sex of the embryo. I measure hatchlings, measure the temperature in the nests, and model different mechanisms to predict the outcome of the incubation conditions. In my country (Guatemala) I am starting to generate basic information about sea turtles, locally known in other countries, and using it to provide information to update and improve the current conservation strategy.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FIELD?
I started working with sea turtles with some friends when we were taking a class and we were supposed to pick a topic. We decided to work with sea turtles because our ecology professor was giving an example of how we didn’t know the sex ratio of sea turtle nest in the Pacific Coast, as a result, of the current practices, and so we thought “How hard can it be?!”. We did a lot of work and then the class ended but the research was not quite finished, so for my bachelor thesis, I decided to finish it.
I was starting to research bibliography to understand how could I predict the sex ratio when I stumbled with no information to do it: in Guatemala. So I wrote Professor Marc Girondot from the University of Paris-Sud and he guided me to make an experiment that could lead us to the approximation of (what we thought) would be the sex ratio of sea turtles produced in Guatemala. One of my Advisor was Dr. Dulce Bustamante an incredibly reliable and true scientist that was working as a professor at the time in my University, she was the true statistical knowledge bridge between Prof. Girondot and my thesis, but overall she was such an amazing mentor even in the field.
A few years later I won the best thesis award and a scholarship opportunity to make my Ph.D. came to me, I applied, and won!! Guess what I used as the dissertation project? Yes, sea turtles. I figured that I had this big amount of knowledge of sea turtles, and so I might as well put it into practice and make something productive out of it. And there I was, working with sea turtles again...and with Prof. Girondot, as my tutor again, along with Dr. Matthew Godfrey and Adriana Cortés, both also outstanding sea turtle scientists.
This time there was no Dulce as an advisor, but I gained another wonderful advisor: Adriana Cortes (key in my doctoral thesis). Nevertheless, it was a great adventure, I got to advise my own undergrad students working with sea turtles. Four undergrad biology students, two that made research a career requirement: Alejandra and Sofía, and two thesis advisees: Bárbara, and María Renee (now also my master advisee), and two vet students: Salomé and Marisette.
After this thesis, I can say proudly that I want to work with sea turtles for the rest of my life! Sea turtle found a way to stay in my heart and gave me the strength to continue with their research and to guide new researchers.
HOW DO/DID YOU TACKLE OBSTACLES?
I've fighting to open a new path in this marine research field in Guatemala, working with sea turtles in my country has been a challenge from the beginning (undergrad thesis). Since no one was working in this area of research, it was difficult to find guidance and information. And permits to research in this delicate area of marine wildlife conservation was tricky. I was lucky enough, first to make my practices under the guidance of a feisty woman that helped me to obtain the permits, Mercedes Barrios, and then I was lucky that Prof. Girondot respond to my simple e-mail and decided to help me, and sent me data loggers (themo-recording devices). Of course, this thesis wasn't cheap, and it had no funds, so my family and friends helped me greatly, even in the fieldwork. For my doctoral thesis, it was the same. I had no funding but a lot of help from my parents Gustavo and Bárbara, and my husband Ricardo. The University helped with the tuition as part of the scholarship, and the University of Paris-Saclay lent me again data loggers. For the fieldwork María Renee was vital help for me, it was difficult to work and drive 270 kilometers every day to gather data necessary to finish my thesis results. Right on time, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT & THINK, "I WISH YOUNGER ME WOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS POSSIBLE?"
I've loved my journey so far, but I think I could've made a much bigger impact in the communities since the undergrad thesis, and not until my Ph.D. I also think that I missed so many opportunities (grants, symposiums, and funding) that I wish I would've taken advantage of, to research more, before the doctoral thesis. Also, I think I missed some publication opportunities due to not knowing how to do it or thinking that it required a fee. Nevertheless, those missed experiences have made me eager to help or advise, and mentor other new students and researchers.
WHY DO YOU LOVE WORKING IN STEM?
I love working in science because is a way in which I can think and analyze it through a method that leads to an approximation of reality, and I get to satisfy that natural curiosity about how certain biological mechanisms work. Science through research is an opportunity to obtain new information about sea turtles, and provide evidence to make better decisions to help the environment, but overall to support the local communities.
BEST ADVICE FOR NEXT GENERATION?
I would say that you should always pursue your dreams and aspirations, be free and think, always think. No matter how crazy your dreams and ideas might sound to others, fight for what you want because if you work hard it's possible. Don't ever think that personal success is easy, but when you achieve it, it's greatness (at least for you). Science is a hard path, especially for people in countries like mine (Guatemala), but passion is greater so if you want it, fight for it.
I grew up in a small town and my thoughts and struggles to fight for the common good, equality, and to help the environment, were always seen as radical and crazy by some teachers, students, and other people. Nevertheless, I decided I wanted to be a biologist, and I am one now. Even when I got diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and Hyperactivity, I decided that I could do it, and I did. I pursued my goals and kept on studying (even two degrees at the same time), and now I've started the search for Postdoctoral opportunities. Yes, my parents and sisters were a great support system, and then my very true friends, but the effort made, the achievements obtained, and the path opening for future scientists, that was all me. Now I get to study and research what I love, but also I get to say I was a pioneer in my country and the best thing, I get to share my knowledge with those who let me.