Intern Spotlight: Mairim M. Villafañe-Vicente (English)

A selfie of a woman wearing sunglasses and an NYC hat standing in front of a rocky shore.Meet Mairim M. Villafañe-Vicente, a master’s student at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Laboratory. Mairim is from Puerto Rico, where she was a SEAS Workforce Fellow at Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (JBNERR). In January 2024, Mairim will complete a communications internship with Maryland Sea Grant and begin full-time graduate studies.

How did your experiences growing up in Puerto Rico influence your career choice?

When you grow up in Puerto Rico, you see a lot of things happen that you don’t approve of, like government issues or laws that are not focused on keeping our natural resources and endemic species healthy. From childhood, I saw that, and I wanted to do something different. Puerto Rico is a really good place to connect with nature, so it was not difficult to think about working to preserve it and wanting to educate people to do the same. Growing up on a beautiful island like Puerto Rico can influence anyone surrounded by it, and in my case, it influenced my future goals towards natural resources preservation.

At what point did you learn about the SEAS Islands Alliance and decide to get involved?

I participated in an internship in 2021 at Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (JBNERR). I got familiar with people there, including a previous SEAS workforce fellow, Solely Luyando Flusa, who told me about the SEAS program. And it was a coincidence that Dr. Maria Barberena Arias, who is one of the leads [for the SEAS Puerto Rico hub], was also my mentor at that time. I knew it was my next step. I also knew that if I got selected to be in the program, it would be a really good opportunity to open new doors.

Young woman staples a sign in a park in Puerto Rico

Mairim updating signage at JBNERR.

So, you worked at Jobos Bay as an intern, and then you returned as a workforce fellow with SEAS. Were there any skills you gained through that position that you feel are particularly valuable?

I got a lot of training there, and I learned how to use a lot of instruments like YSI probes to measure water quality. To learn more about these instruments, I participated in the 2023 National Estuarine Research Reserve System Technician Training Workshop. It was a really good experience. Also, I learned how to connect with people that are not scientifically involved and how to connect with children. I really liked that I gave the tours to visitors and got to show them around.

One of the most important things I learned is how to develop a doctoral project as I had the opportunity to work with two doctoral students. One of one of them was from Puerto Rico, and the other was from the [continental] US. I learned how to make transects, how to monitor sites, and how to measure a lot of parameters. I developed my personal and professional skills. Also, the mentors were so open. They gave me so much advice about what to do there when doing science, or what to do in other professional or personal situations.

That sounds like an incredible experience. Do you think it influenced your decision to pursue a graduate degree?

I always knew that I wanted to do a master’s or PhD, but I didn’t know which one. Also, I didn’t know how to make it possible, because I didn’t have enough money to pay for a graduate program. Luckily, I have never had to think what exactly to do, because when one door opens, it comes with other things, like what happened to me in SEAS. So, I’ve never needed to plan something for a long term, and in this way I can say that being a workforce fellow did influence my decision to go to graduate school because it made it accessible and real.

Can you talk a little bit about what you’re planning to research in your graduate program?

There is not a complete plan yet, but I know that I will be identifying zooplankton in pictures taken by an Imaging FlowCytobot instrument in the Choptank River. Dr. Jamie Pierson, my advisor, has been working on this project for a long time, and I’m going to complete that part. I also want to include Puerto Rico in my project. I want to do research at JBNERR. Being a workforce fellow there was something that helped a lot because now I know where I want to do my study. I saw it’s easy to work there, and I know the people. They have instruments I can use, and they’ve said that I can use whatever I want for the project. That helps a lot in making a path for my future.

A person snorkeling to collect a sample from the post of a dock.

Mairim snorkeling to clean water quality probes at JBNERR.

That’s a full circle experience. How do you think the skills you’re gaining as a workforce fellow and through your master’s program will benefit Puerto Rico in the future?

That’s a big question. I’m making sacrifices and giving my time to learn specifically because my goal is focusing my effort on Puerto Rico. I can’t say I’m going to change Puerto Rico, because I want to be realistic, but I do want to move people there. I know that not everyone enjoys nature like I do, but people have to understand that we depend on nature to live. Like, as simple as a bee. Do you know what would happen if bees didn’t exist? I want to use my skills and knowledge to help build back my country, and to teach people the importance behind it. Some people think that we can live from technology, like for them is more important to cut a tree to have a better internet connection in their houses. I would love to explain them what will happened at the end when we have only internet but no trees.

Have you experienced mentorship in your career? Why is mentorship important?

There are a lot of students in university that need people to guide them. I remember that during my first year of undergrad I was trying to find internships and research, but I was just in my first year, so nobody wanted me or they said there were no projects. I kept pushing, and in my third year I joined a group of researchers named TuEres. The only person who opened those doors for me was Dr. Ivelisse Irizarry. She was different because she treated me like a professional, like someone that really wants to grow and not like an inexperienced student as I felt I was. Thanks to her, I am here today. I think it is important to have more people like her at every university. Sometimes students just quit because they don’t have someone to back them and that’s why it is so important to me be a mentor and let early scientists to know that they can reach whatever they propose in their lives.

You recently moved to Maryland to start your graduate work and to work as a communications intern. Has there been anything unexpected or challenging about moving to Maryland and living here?

It is a big change, because I have always lived in the same house in Puerto Rico with my family. For me, the hard part was saying goodbye to the people I love and leaving my cats behind. Before I started, my advisor Jamie brought me here in the summer just to look around. That helped a lot, because I could see where I was going to be, and who I would be with, and I could see the atmosphere. For me, it wasn’t a big thing. It was different because it’s a change, but life comes with a lot of change, and you just have to adapt to it.

A girl sitting on top of a large boulder in the middle of the forest.

Mairim hiking in Guam.

The internship that you’re doing right now with the Maryland Sea Grant focuses on science communication. Can you talk a little bit about what excites you about science communication?

I like to talk. That’s the first thing. I like to talk, I like to connect with people, and I like to show people what we do. Before starting the Sea Grant internship, I used to post things when I went hiking, and I was trying to bring people’s attention to respect nature. Now I feel that I really can contribute to that cause. Maryland Sea Grant is giving me the opportunity to improve my skills and to have the instruments and the platforms that I need, and I’m learning a lot of things. I’m excited to reconnect with Puerto Rico people again, and to connect with people from Guam and the US Virgin Islands.

Do you have a thought or a plan about what you’ll do after you earn your master’s degree?

I have three plans. The first one is after I graduate, I can go back to Puerto Rico and start doing independent contracts with private or government agencies to identify zooplankton. Plan B is that I could jump to a PhD program. Plan C is to do an internship outside of Puerto Rico and outside of the mainland US. I am thinking about Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands. I like Guam, and I want to learn things outside of my comfort zone to bring it back to Puerto Rico, so it is a promising target.

Did you learn more about Guam through SEAS?

Yes! I didn’t even know about the existence of the island as it is on the other side of the world, or that they are also a US territory. I like the fact that we can go there and connect with their people and see the similarities that we have as islands. It was amazing. I can’t even explain—you have to live it to feel what I felt when I visited. I don’t know when, but I’m definitely going back.

Do you have any hobbies or things you like to do outside of work and school?

My new favorite thing is snorkeling and scuba diving. I’m certified for scuba, but haven’t had time to practice it more because I came here to Maryland, but I will at some point in my life. I also enjoy drawing, spending time with my family, and hiking. I love to go to the beach and hang out with friends a lot. It is the best place to relax for me. Another hobby of mine is cars. I used to race with my brother, and we used to go to see races and spend time together. A future goal that I have is to own a really good car.

A woman getting ready to snorkel while sitting on the back of a boat in the middle of a large lake.

Mairim about to snorkel in Jobos Bay.

Do you have any advice for other SEAS students or students who are interested in environmental science?

They should keep focus. I know there are times you can’t focus on something because it is too easy to lose your north, but as long as you know what you want, you should keep pushing. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to do it, the important thing here is to believe in yourself. In my case, the SEAS program was and still is helpful with that. You have to take advantage of these types of opportunities and use everything you can gain in the program to build yourself, and to understand that you are worthy and you can do it. Sometimes your biggest enemy is your mind. If you think you will fail, then you will fail. If you think you will succeed, then you will succeed.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I have some more advice for people who are new to this. Sometimes, the things that you want are not what you need. You have to be open-minded and have to know when to make decisions or when to take good opportunities. Sometimes people think that things that happen to them are not what they want or that they are not worthy of it, but that mindset will just make them get stuck. I would love for people to understand the importance of feeling self-sufficient and recognizing that greatness is already within them. They just have to let it flow and reinforce those weak points that take away from believing in their dreams.

Interview by Hannah Cooper, Science Management and Policy Intern with Maryland Sea Grant.

Read the Spanish translation of this interview here.

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This project has been funded through a grant by the National Science Foundation.

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