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Dr. Sonia Ortega - Program Director and Marine Biologist
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You’ve all heard of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and how she needed to have things just right. Scientists who study solar systems have developed the “Goldilocks” Theory for the possibility of life on planets. For life to exist, the conditions on a planet have to be just right. As a marine biologist, I saw this theory in my own work with oysters.

As a research associate at the Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina, I conducted research on oysters because the oyster catch was going down. For oysters to grow, they need something solid (like pillars, rocks, or shells) to settle on. Fishermen were putting empty shells into the water for the oysters to settle, but they didn’t know the best place to put them. Before oysters settle they spend some time in the water as larvae, swimming freely and looking for the best place to attach themselves. My job was to find where the oysters liked it most, like Goldilocks. The depth of the water and how much salt the water contained were the most important conditions to consider. With my assistant, I set up 12 different sites in the water to test what the oysters liked best. Every three weeks I would dive into the muddy water, pull up the mats where I’d attached oyster shells, and examine them to see if oysters had settled on the empty shells. It was like a paid vacation, seeing as how I love SCUBA diving.

Just like with Goldilocks, I found out that the oysters liked to have things juuuust right. Some of my oysters were too deep in the water, some too shallow. Some were in water that was too salty, some in water that wasn’t salty enough. But some of the oysters grew best; and I found that the shallower, saltier water was just right for oysters to settle. But research is something that gives you unexpected results, too. (That’s why it’s so exciting!) I found out that if the oysters were already grown, they preferred a lower salt area. So, I discovered that as oysters grow older, they want different conditions. Not only was my research enjoyable, but it also helped the fishing industry in North Carolina.

I grew up with my mother and three sisters in Central America, and I was always a little weird! I was always thinking about exciting adventures and places to go. I was fascinated with the idea of exploring the world under the ocean. Also, the crop dusters I saw flying over the cotton fields of northern Nicaragua left an impression. Wouldn’t flying be wonderful? I longed for the adventure of uncovering and experiencing new things. When I was eleven, my father died. This left my mother alone to raise us girls. She had no education to help her get a job. Her skills as a seamstress brought in extra money. My mom kept telling us that if she had an education our situation would be different. She encouraged us to study to be able to support ourselves. I went to college in Costa Rica and then received a fellowship to go to Duke University for graduate school. My education has opened up the doorway for me to explore all of the adventures I dreamed about as a girl.

Never miss a chance to learn, because you never know when your skills could be useful. Everything is possible when you set your mind to it. Trust yourself and follow your dreams. After all these years, my childhood dream to become a pilot finally came true. I got my private pilot’s license in 1997. It’s never too late to learn!

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