Meet Dr. Alicia Pérez-Porro, a marine biologist who´s fighting climate change from underwater!

Why science?

I’ve always been incredibly curious. I grew up in Barcelona, Spain, and spent my childhood constantly wondering, what else is out there? My attention went to things other people weren’t paying attention to, especially around animals and biology. When I was five or six, I used to store bugs in the fridge to observe them (“eew”, my friends would say). During my summers, I would capture flies in jars and name, observe, and feed them. These were my summer pets, Pepa, Lola, and Maria!

I’m actually the first scientist in my family. Besides occasionally telling me I couldn’t store bugs in the fridge, they have always been very supportive. I grew up in an environment where I didn’t know women could not pursue certain careers. So, for example, when I learned about Diane Fossey, I was inspired by her, not by the fact that she was a woman.

There were some naysayers, of course. My dad didn’t want me to study biology because it wasn’t lucrative. He wasn’t wrong, but I have had the opportunity to be chased by a barracuda for two hours under the water. I’ll take that over lucrative any day.

Alicia Pérez-Porro

How do you combine work and life?

I’ve always loved to dance and was a professional modern dancer at one point. I tried to maintain my dancing throughout my Ph.D., and now that my daughter is almost one year old, I’m excited to rekindle that passion.

They say that once you have kids, your priorities change. This definitely happened to me with dancing and my perspective on the world. The most important thing now is to play with my daughter for the next three hours–email can wait.

Even with these changing priorities, I’ve struggled to manage both my professional and personal aspirations. I neglected my personal life during my Ph.D. Some days I would even forget to eat. I had to go to the hospital several times due to stress. The worst part is, I wasn’t even being that productive. I remember being told that “work-life balance” doesn’t exist; you have to work 24/7 now to be able to deserve a life later. I thankfully now know this is wrong. You need to have a life to be a good worker—in science or otherwise. Some days, I work more with less time for my personal life, and some days, it’s the opposite. “Balance” is not about each day; it’s about the bigger picture.

Interestingly, now that I have a baby, I’m way more productive than when I was during my Ph.D. Now I only have 8 hours to work. Period. Before, I had 20 hours a day I could dedicate to work if I wanted.

What is your research?

I study marine sponges and analyze their genomes to answer questions about climate change. I started my research studying how sponges reproduce, describing the life cycle and the reproductive elements of Mediterranean sponges. Later, as I saw how climate change and a warmer ocean could affect sponge reproduction, I zeroed in on basic research, or research that fills in gaps in our knowledge, and started focusing on genomics during my Ph.D.

I learned quickly that my brain isn’t structured for only basic research—I need to see the potential applications of my research and to help society at large understand the consequences of what scientists are learning. In my case, that means working on environmental conservation, protection, and education – especially focused on climate change. I’m not going to save the world, but this is my small contribution.

Alicia in her lab in Harvard/ Alicia Pérez-Porro

What were your biggest barriers?

Science hasn’t been all sponges and corals, unfortunately. The biggest barrier has nothing to do with my work – it’s just being a woman in science. I remember the first time someone told me “no” because I was a woman. I was in Costa Rica surveying fishermen, and some of them didn’t want women to enter their boats because it was bad luck. I remember not taking it seriously since I didn’t believe in their superstitions, but it was an omen of what was to come.

Later experiences have had a more lasting impact and have shown me how hurtful superstitions and stereotypes can be. I was raped at the beginning of my Ph.D. by another Ph.D. student in the same research center. The scientific community at my university in Spain encouraged me not to go to the police. They told me to take pity on the guy, saying “he’s suffered enough”. I did go to the police, who told me the same thing. When I finally went in front of a Judge, he told me it was my fault. My research center didn’t want to take sides, which meant I was left alone. This produced a lot of anxiety and confusion. I was lucky enough to be able to switch research labs, and I spent the last five years of my Ph.D. at Harvard. But I was reminded that I shouldn’t have to change universities—or continents—to feel protected by my community.

Fast forward a few years, and I ran into more sexism, which every female scientist faces. The last straw was when I was asked to leave a project because I was pregnant. The stereotype around pregnancy meant I was viewed as a second-class worker. I knew then I couldn’t go gently into the night.

What responses have you had to these barriers?

I’ve begun investing my energy in education, advocacy, and actual change on these issues. I now work with schools—from elementary to university—giving talks about both my research and what it means to be a woman in science. I also founded and chair a commission for women in science in a professional association for Spanish scientists in the USA, where we hold events, discussions, and other projects to move the conversation around women in science forward.

Most recently, I am part of the 2018 Homeward Bound team, a leadership development program for women who work on climate change to empower us to have more impact on decision makers and society. If this is you, or you think the idea is great, please visit my fundraising page to either help me make this a reality and/or to get more information for yourself on how to apply.

Alicia Pérez-Porro

What do you hope happens next?

I see myself at the intersection of science and society. In 10 years, I may still be a researcher, but I also hope to be working with policy and other decision makers. Right now, I mainly think about ocean conservation and women in science. I know there are more, bigger issues to continue to work on. Essentially, I want to change the system when I grow up!

Thinking back to Pepa, Lola, and Maria, I want to also make sure that whatever I do allows me to continue to be curious, to explore the world and give back what I’ve learned, and of course, do ocean fieldwork!


You can follow Alicia on Twitter!