As a first-generation college student, Yasmin Quintana never imagined pursuing a career in fish ecology. For girls in her home country of Guatemala, becoming a scientist was not generally encouraged.
Now, the doctoral student in the Texas A&M University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology has teamed up with international organizations to empower young women to pursue their scientific aspirations.
Growing up, Quintana was a curious child. She could always be found playing outside and asking questions about the world around her.
“I remember that I really liked to play with rocks, flowers, seeds and whatever I found outside,” she laughed. “I used my creativity a lot, and I was exposed to gardens and fields. I really started to connect with nature and learn about natural sciences.”
Her inquisitive personality and love for nature made Quintana an exceptional student, especially in her science courses. In high school, her dedication to her studies was rewarded with a scholarship to the University of San Carlos of Guatemala, where she received her undergraduate degree in biology.
Throughout her time as an undergraduate student, Quintana would seek information from any professor or mentor who would give their time. On a few occasions, she waited outside a mentor’s house for hours to get a few minutes of his time and access to his professional knowledge.
After graduating, Quintana began working with artisanal fishermen on fisheries management and fish ecology projects. She quickly realized she was one of the only women in this traditionally male-dominated field. This encouraged her to continue her education and create a space in ichthyology for women.
She conducted many research projects while in Guatemala, including field work on Lake Izabal, where she contracted chickenpox. Even though Quintana could not take fish samples from the lake in her condition, she found a way to continue isolated work in the lab. Quintana eventually relocated to the United States and completed a master’s degree in interdisciplinary ecology with a concentration in fisheries and aquatic sciences at the University of Florida.
Quintana’s passion for ichthyology and drive to continue her education led her to Texas A&M University. She was awarded the Russell E. Train Education for Nature fellowship from the World Wildlife Foundation. She quickly contacted Kirk Winemiller, Ph.D., professor and interim head of the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, for a chance to work with him in the Winemiller Aquatic Ecology Lab.
Promoting women in science
In addition to her many research projects for Texas A&M in Guatemala, Quintana devotes her time to the Organization for Women in Science in the Developing World (OWSD) Guatemala National Chapter. As an early member of OWSDW, Quintana knew she wanted to be a voice for women interested in scientific disciplines. She joined the organization in 2019 after witnessing similar women in science organizations being developed at the University of Florida and Texas A&M.
“I’ve been trying to be a part of these organizations and learn how to promote women in science because we didn’t do that in Guatemala,” said Quintana. “It’s hard to imagine being a woman working in science in Guatemala because we didn’t have those (female) role models or mentors. So, I joined OWSD, and we started talking about how we could promote different types of activities with children, young women and women in early careers. We wanted to work with national institutions to get funds from international sources to promote these projects.”
After working as a coordinator and volunteering for the organization in several capacities, Quintana attended an OWSD workshop for creative writing. The aim of the workshop was for women to tell their stories in a way that could inspire young women and children.
Ultimately, these stories were shared with the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, and utilized for the Lifelong Learning Project that promotes literacy in Guatemala. Quintana, along with seven other female scientists, were featured in the project’s Inspiring Guatemalan Women Series for their work in aquatic-related topics.
Inspiring Guatemalan women
Quintana’s story is part of the book “Scientists who jump into the water,” the fourth installment in the inspiring Guatemalan Women Series. It chronicles Quintana’s childhood and how her academic achievements allowed her to study fish and travel to far-away places.
The book is appropriate for fourth- to sixth-grade reading levels and encourages young girls to do their best and chase their dreams, even if those dreams are outside of societal norms or expectations.
“The books are being distributed in public schools now,” Quintana said. “We are trying to get funds to print more copies because the public is really excited about these stories. It’s totally new for us; we don’t have this kind of material for children in Guatemala, and it’s really exciting.”
Quintana finds the opportunity to be featured in the children’s book to be surreal. She couldn’t believe people were interested in reading her story, not to mention being inspired by it.
“It’s like a dream,” Quintana said with a smile. “It made me think about how much I loved and enjoyed reading as a kid. I just think ‘wow,’ someone is going to read my story and be impacted by it, and I think that is amazing.”
Quintana is currently working with Winemiller in his lab and pursuing her doctorate in wildlife and fisheries sciences. Her most recent project focuses on the fish community and trophic relationships in the Usumacinta River, the largest river in Mesoamerica. She hopes to understand the ecological impact of the invasive armored catfish on native fish in this region. This project is critical, as there is currently no baseline for this type of research.
When she isn’t working on her own research projects, Quintana is mentoring female students interested in fish ecology but might not otherwise have the resources or guidance they need. As an advisor for students’ undergraduate thesis projects, Quintana provides young female researchers with her experience, expertise and professional connections. She hopes to be the female mentor that she always wished she had.
“If I see an opportunity to work with or mentor girls in Guatemala, I do it,” Quintana said. “I have been helping at least three students who want to study fish or something water-related. I want to give back what I have learned and help them.”
The students she currently works with are studying at her undergraduate alma mater in Guatemala. However, Quintana welcomes the opportunity to mentor any student who seeks her guidance.
Looking to the future
After her time at Texas A&M, Quintana looks forward to continuing her research related to tropical ecosystems and developing countries. She hopes to work for a university or organization that focuses its research on Latin America.
No matter where she ends up, Quintana will continue advocating for female ichthyologists and ecologists. She believes creating an environment that encourages women to work in these fields will go a long way in expanding the number of female scientists from Guatemala and allowing young girls to know that science is not just a field for men.
“I think that if I had female role models, it would have been totally different,” Quintana said. “It was tough to conceive that I was in a world that was so different for women and for men. I hope that I can contribute to making it easier.”
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