A major turning point in Catalina Martinez’s career, who is now a physical scientist with NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, was the year she spent as a Knauss Marine Policy Fellow – especially since, 14 years later, she’s still with the same program that hired her for her fellowship.
Martinez was selected to work in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s brand new Office of Ocean Exploration. “I got really lucky. They hired me as a Knauss fellow when they were just developing their program in 2002,” she says, explaining that she followed the development of the program, which had only existed for a year before coming on board. “This mission to explore the world’s oceans that we know little or nothing about – there’s nothing else like it.”
Martinez had been preparing to apply for the Knauss Fellowship throughout her graduate school career. She knew that she wanted to go to Washington, D.C., and experience the executive and legislative branches of government there. She even picked up a second Masters degree. “I did a Masters in oceanography and then I did a second Masters in marine affairs, back to back, knowing that that would make me more competitive as I applied for the Knauss fellowship.”
Her hard work paid off, because not only was she awarded the Fellowship, she also was matched with her first choice of project. The Office of Ocean Exploration appealed to her both because of its mission and its recent establishment. “I knew that this was a start up, and that was what I wanted,” she explains. “I knew I was coming into something that would be really chaotic but really exciting, and that there would be a lot of opportunity to probably carve out my own path.”
Martinez has become very good at carving her own path over the years. A high school dropout at 16, she always knew that she needed to pursue her own educational path. She got her GED and started taking courses at local colleges to work towards a degree. “CCRI, Johnson & Wales, Rhode Island College, wherever I could get a course,” she says. “ I pieced it all together.” Meanwhile, she found work in human services. She helped to start the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program in Providence, a school for students at risk of dropping out, and later became an overnight resident at a shelter for women and children who were victims of abuse.
She was always determined to follow her passion for science, though. “I was working in direct, hardcore human service for a long time,” she says. “But I always knew that I wanted to study the ocean. I loved the ocean.”
She eventually enrolled in a degree program at the University of Rhode Island, where she continued to challenge herself. “Back then, when I entered URI in ‘94, they didn’t have the marine biology program yet. They had a premed program called zoology,” she explained. “It was basically the higher science pathway, and I knew I wanted to go to grad school so I wanted to make sure I had the prerequisites – the physics and the chemistry and the calculus. It kicked my butt, but I did it.”
Now, at her job at the Office of Exploration, she is happy for the opportunity to combine her interests in science and human services. . “I have such a great job. So I get to do this crazy fun science stuff but also, a big part of my role in the office is that I lead diversity efforts for the office,” she says. “I do a lot of engagement, a lot of education and outreach, mostly to urban students who are underrepresented in sciences.”
She also hosts workshops to help organizations develop a more welcoming culture for minority students. This is a key component to encouraging diversity, she says, that is often overlooked. “It’s one thing to recruit women or underrepresented minorities into a program, but it’s very hard to keep them, or for them to be successful if you have the wrong environment for them… It’s hard enough to get them in the door. So you really have to look at your environment and your culture to make sure that you’re creating a place that they want to stay.”
For Martinez, her Knauss fellowship year was the opportunity that she needed to get her foot in the door at NOAA and the Office of Ocean Exploration. Now, 14 years later, she has been able to shape her position to allow her to work both on exploring the deep ocean and work on empowering minority students to go into the sciences. “I get to help that next generation get to the point where they can then position themselves to be the wave of change that’s going to happen, to really broaden diversity in the sciences. That, to me, is some of the most important work that I do.”
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Every year, each Sea Grant state office selects outstanding graduate students to compete nationally for the John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship. The Knauss Fellowship, named for one of Sea Grant’s founders, provides awardees with a unique educational and professional experience to work with policy makers in Washington, D.C., and gain an inside view of policy decisions affecting our nation’s oceans, coastal areas, and Great Lakes.
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Keegan Glennon | Rhode Island Sea Grant Communications Intern