Scientist Series: Facing Fears while Scuba Diving in Colombia & Panama

Science terms to know:

Salt wedgeoccur when the mouth of a river flows directly into salt water. The circulation is controlled by the river that pushes back the seawater. This creates a sharp boundary that separates an upper less salty layer from an intruding wedge-shaped salty bottom layer..

 Refraction: the bending of a wave when it enters a medium where its speed is different. The refraction of light when it passes from a fast medium to a slow medium bends the light ray toward the normal to the boundary between the two media.

I have spent most of my life living in fear. An inherent fear that lead to extreme caution in all situations. Upon arriving at the University of Michigan this portion of my psyche did not go away. It grew. It snowballed into something bigger and bigger every day as I walked around campus. Science had always been something I was extremely attracted to. I remember being a child and pretending I was a chemist by mixing all my shampoos together like a mad scientist. Later I would start collecting rocks and read children geology books, sticky notes with my third grade handwriting littered the pages. Ya, I was born to be a huge science nerd from Day One.

In Ann Arbor, everyone warned me about the difficulty of the science classes. My fear kept me away from something that I loved. The fear was only multiplied when I believed everyone who told me that the only reason I had been able to enroll at Michigan was because of my minority status. I believed them every moment that I was a student. My fear and belief that I was not qualified were enough to hold me in a place that lead to unhappiness. I did not fit in with my Communications classes. I did not fit in with my Political Science classes. I did not fit in with my Psychology classes. This is normal for college, I get that, but fear was keeping me from exploring what I truly loved.

Thankfully due to some course requirements, I was forced to take an introductory Oceanography course. I am not going to lie, I did horrible on my first exam. Mainly because I came down with Scarlet fever, but that is neither here nor there. After I did horrible on that first exam I decided to delve deep into this class to make sure I ended it on a high note. The more I studied for this class, the more I realized that I was not working so hard because I wanted a good grade. I was working so hard because I truly enjoyed studying for this class  and I was genuinely so engrossed with the subject matter.

At the end of this course, I knew I had to take more Oceanography/geology classes in the fall semester, maybe dabble with a minor in Oceanography. Summer vacation quickly came and I decided to move in with my grandmother and my aunt in Colombia. I took a literature and writing class at the Universidad del Rosario while I lived in Bogota, the capital city. Working out was  a top priority while I studied. Swimming has always been my exercise of choice and my wonderful aunt found an outlet for me. She got a little dramatic with it though (thankfully) and she signed me up for a two-month-long Scuba and Free Diving course. We met every day for two hours, it included a yoga session and swim work out on top of SCUBA certification lessons and free diving instruction. In a nutshell it was heaven.

At the conclusion of the SCUBA class, I was sent on a trip to Capurganá, Colombia. A little town nestled between the border of Colombia and Panamá. Only accessible by plane or boat. The airplane I had to take was so small, I watched the pilot eat his ham and cheese sandwich as he maneuvered the flying metal tube of death. Awesome. Capurganá was unlike anywhere I had been in Colombia. The jungle was thick and the humidity was unforgiving. A biologist had accompanied the trip and she was pointing out exotic ferns, Leafcutter ants, and a boa constrictor among more exicting biology.

Our first dive came and I was once again consumed with fear. As much as I had practiced getting into water with all the equipment I could not help but panic as I descended into the ocean. The sound of bubbles bombarded me and my scuba buddy also began to panic. She had forgotten how to equalize the pressure in her face mask and her frantic gestures put us both in a frenzy. After I froze I motioned to my nose and tried to show her what she was forgetting. When she gathered her composure we were finally able to descend and that is when I saw it. The salt wedge. A very simple term in oceanography.

I had a flashbacks to sitting in class answering questions about estuarine environments. But there it

figure-14
A salt wedge is created when the freshwater and saltwater meet. Image from: biodiversitybc.orgwas. In person. I could see it with my own eyes and feel it with my exposed hand. I was mesmerized. Tears welled up into my eyes. It was simple, almost too simple. A salt wedge is where a fresh body of water meets ocean water. The division can be seen with the human eye because of the refraction occuring between the less saline warm water at the surface and the colder saline water below the surface layer. Both bodies of water have different densities so light travels through it at different speeds causing a refraction. A similar phenomena  occurs when you place oil and water together in a glass. The division between each liquid can be visibly seen.

was. In person. I could see it with my own eyes and feel it with my exposed hand. I was mesmerized. Tears welled up into my eyes. It was simple, almost too simple. A salt wedge is where a fresh body of water meets ocean water. The division can be seen with the human eye because of the refraction occuring between the less saline warm water at the surface and the colder saline water below the surface layer. Both bodies of water have different densities so light travels through it at different speeds causing a refraction. A similar phenomena  occurs when you place oil and water together in a glass. The division between each liquid can be visibly seen.

112
While having lunch on a deserted island off the coast of Panama, I found this small microscope. At the time I felt it was a sign that I needed to pursue science.

 

I still get goosebumps recalling my first real life encounter with a salt wedge. From that moment on, I knew I had to take every single Oceanography/Geology class Michigan had to offer. My fears of failing were not as important as learning everything possible thing about the ocean. That fall, I summoned the courage and told my parents I would be majoring in Geology focusing on Oceanography. I would later learn that they jumped for joy when I finally choose to study a science.

This all leads back to fear. As a minority, you are constantly being told by the media what categories you fit in. I fell into that trap. I only saw myself as a failure before I even gave anything that I was truly passionate for a try. This is why representation of minorities in STEM fields is so vital. Thankfully for me, after some academic requirements, support from my family, and real life experience, I faced my fears. I jumped in fins first into a geologic abyss and I have not regretted it for one moment since.

2 Comments

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  1. Great article, but maybe I’m biased because I’m a #scubagirl too! I’m currently staying in Cedar, Michigan and will be around Ann Harbor tomorrow! What a coincidance. I also felt a little bit of that fear before learning how to dive. It’s something always on the back of your mind that makes you doubt yourself. But once I overcame that, scubadiving became a sort of catalyst. Since getting certified, I’ve traveled more, experience more and tried new things that once I never thought possible. When we say yes to the unknown, it opens great doors for us. Cheers to being fearless!

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