I can’t be the only one who has watched TED talks and been in awe of the speakers’ confidence, passion and resilience to share their ideas on the big stage. And after years of watching these amazing people speak, to put it simply, I wanted to be like them! I wanted to communicate my passion for conservation science on such a prestigious platform.
When I decided to take a year off between my Master's degree and pursuing a doctorate, never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would've gone so out of my comfort zone and done a TEDx talk on the how female sharks and female scientists are more alike than you think. I looked at how both shark diversity and diversity in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) role models are overlooked by the media, and why both need to change. It was recently (June 2017) released on YouTube! I’m extremely proud of the end result and I hope you will watch and let me know your thoughts. What can we, as a scientists with a platform, help those whose voices are drowned out?
You can watch "Shark and Females Scientists: More Alike Than You Think" here:
So, what was it like giving a TEDx talk? Exciting, exhilarating, nerve wracking. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start from the beginning...
what is a tedx talk?
TEDx events are planned and coordinated independently from TED, and helps communities, organizations and individuals produce TED-style events at the local level. These talks are short (eighteen minutes or less) and the competition is pretty fierce. We had to submit our outline ahead of time, then go through an interview process. We were only given a theme (ours was “What's your perspective?”) we could use to draw inspiration from. Per TED requirements, no TEDx speakers are paid to give their talks.
I thought my interview went well, and waited until Friday for them to reach out with a "Yes, you're in!" or "No, we've gone with someone else." Business hours (9-5pm) passed and I was sure I hadn't made the cut, so I wrote an e-mail to the person who interviewed me (who was also in charge of the whole event) thanking him for the opportunity to interview and that I was excited to attend as an audience member. No sooner had I sent that, I received a confidential e-mail... I had gotten in! I was in such shock that I had a hard time picking my jaw off the floor and once I did, I started screaming in joy and jumping on the couches with my husband.
I wasn't allowed to tell anyone for weeks. I'm so-so when it comes to keeping something SO BIG such a secret, and this was just itching to get out. But, I was thankfully distracted by the monumental task at hand: writing the talk. This was BY FAR the hardest thing for me to do because I wanted to jam pack so much into it. I had a tremendous opportunity to use, arguably, one of the most popular platforms in the world-- I didn't want to waste it. I wanted my advocacy for women in STEM to shine through while somehow intermingling it with my love for diverse sharks.
I would write drafts and jot down notes wherever I was. What was my goal with giving this talk? What topics should I include? What do I want people to walk away with? Why am I doing this?
While many TEDx speakers I've talked to had months of preparing, we had ONE MONTH. The pressure was on and we all dove into our coaching sessions with our respective mentors. Almost immediately we were told to ditch our notes so we could start getting use to it-- afterall, we wouldn't have note cards up on the big stage.
I've given a lot of presentations before TEDx, but never had I not had some key words to help guide my storytelling. This prospect terrified me, and I began muttering my speech under my breath wherever I went. I even recorded myself hundreds of times (due to all the edits I ended up doing) and solely listened to myself the last two weeks... I was so happy when I got to delete those recordings, haha.
I wouldn't let anyone outside of the TEDx group hear my speech, especially my husband (I didn't want him sick and tired of it by the time the big day rolled around). My speech coach and I spent a lot of time together since I had a few "dramatics" we wanted to add to my speech to really have it stand out-- we went over these multiple times with the light and sound guys during our rehearsals.
When I was told I would be going dead last, I'm not going to lie: I wasn't thrilled. Not only would my poor parents have to stay up until almost 2am EST, but I felt like I wouldn't be able to sit back and enjoy the whole day as nerves kicked in. I was only partially right-- I didn't enjoy the last section as I got myself ready and micced up.
I was pacing on the side of the stage, listening to the musical Hamilton to calm myself down. As I was told to take the headphones off and get to my place, I felt the need to vomit. Again, as someone who has done public speaking before, this was... new. Perhaps it was because the theater we were giving our talks at was filled to the brim with 1,000 people.
Sarb, the MC for the night, gave me the most heartfelt introduction that made me curse not wearing waterproof mascara. And once on that plush, red rug I'll admit I froze for a second. For those who really know me, you can tell when in the video I got into my groove. It was a story I had told so many times before but now had an audience that was listening (or just really wanting to get the free TEDx-themed beer). And as I neared the end of the talk, I got extremely emotional... something I had never done before while giving the speech and it caught all of us (the TEDx team, my fellow speakers, my husband, myself) off-guard. That hitch in my voice and the tears that followed were never planned (and I'm a bit embarrassed that I'm forever crying on Youtube).
I had a special tribute at the end of my talk, that sadly the Youtube video doesn't capture. For weeks, I had asked fellow female shark (or stingray, skate, and chimaera) scientists to send their selfies for a giant mural. The last slide was all of their pictures, together, showing the diversity within our ranks... and just how many of there are. It was a triumphant feeling to know I literally had them behind me.
As I stepped off the stage, I was embraced by my other speakers and was flooded with congratulatory messages from those in the audience - both there in person and virtually. I was on such a high; the biggest adrenaline rush I have ever experienced. And as I made my way to the speaker's corner (where audience members can line up to talk to you), I was overcome with a "I can't believe I just did that" feeling. My table had a line of people wanting to talk to me -- many just said thank you for sharing my story. I had brothers thanking me for sharing the experiences their sisters go through; older women saying they went through the same thing 40 years prior; women my age commenting on how brave I was.
As of publishing this post, my talk has received over 1,000 views on YouTube. That is an incredible feeling and it makes me feel like my hard work paid off. Hopefully this talk starts meaningful discussions about STEM diversity... along with making Shark Week commentators aware of what claspers are, haha.
Response to Common Criticisms
Comment from Youtube: 'I am a woman, and because of that I was put a apart in the field' .... 'I am a woman, and I do not have conditions for be pregnant, or have my period or breastfeed, plus I am obvious smaller and shorter than everyone else on the boat so don't count with me for heavy lifting.' Make up you mind.
I'm not exactly sure what this comment was getting at. But, I agree that I should have better worded some sections of my talk better. I will be sure to do this next time I speak on this topic. However, I still stand behind the idea that women shouldn't be 'counted out' of anything just because of our gender. None of us ask for a "pass" because of our gender. And while being pregnant or on our period does pose some hurdles, it often doesn't stop us -- look at what Meaghen McCord did while pregnant!
The lack of role models is not the main problem.
You're right, it isn't. But it is a problem - and one with a pretty easy solution. Bigger problems include exposing minorities to better opportunities with greater funding (as many worry about putting food on the table, keeping a roof over their heads, etc) which requires solutions that will often take a long time. However, shining a spotlight on those minority/female scientists is a way we can show those around us that these scientists exist. And that means everything to a child looking for someone in their interested field that is like them.
You lost half of your audience by 'calling out' white men.
I'm not taking away from what anyone has done- they worked hard to get where they are and they deserve what they have. I'm not saying to take away their seat at the table... simple suggesting to make the table bigger and to add more seats.
A big thank you for all who watched and have said kind words. To my support system - my family, my husband, my best friends, strangers who have supported me- THANK YOU.
Hi, I'm Melissa! I'm a girl obsessed with macaroni & cheese, puppies, and eco-friendly products. Welcome.
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