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

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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.

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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.

Descubriendo Mis Raíces/Discovering My Roots

It is the summer of 2012. I had just ended my third year of college and was preparing for my first independent trip abroad. When I first told my family that I would be going to El Salvador that summer to study at La Universidad de El Salvador (UES) they were completely against it. They feared for my safety and did not like the idea that I would be getting myself too involved in the country’s political sphere. I could not blame them for having those thoughts though. My parents fled El Salvador’s Civil War in 1984. By that time the country had been at war for five years and with seven more intense years ahead of it. Between 70,000 – 80,000 people lost their lives, 550,000 people were internally displaced, and about 500,000 people sought refuge in different parts of the world. Growing up, my parents did not speak about the country’s history or their experience through the war. Once again, I don’t blame them for this for it was a traumatic experience for them. All I knew about being Salvadoran was pupusas, cumbias, and our blue and white flag. That all changed when I began college at the University of California Santa Barbara and I joined a student organization, La Union Salvadoreña de Estudiantes Universitarios (a.k.a. USEU). It was through this organization and other Latin American studies classes that I learned more about El Salvador’s history, politics, and culture. When the summer of 2012 came and we were told the organizing for USEU’s annual study abroad program was beginning I signed up for the trip. I knew this would be a life changing experience. 

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El Tazumal – Mayan Ruins

I still remember the different emotions that I felt when I landed at Comalapa Airport in San Salvador that summer. I was so excited to be taking this trip with some of my closest friends. I had been to El Salvador a few times as a child but always headed straight to San Miguel where my family is from. This time around my trip would be based in the country’s capital, San Salvador. We stayed at a comfortable hostel which was a walking distance from the university. La Universidad de El Salvador is the country’s oldest university and a very important part of the country’s war history. A lot of student organizing against the war occurred on this campus. Unfortunately because of the strong student resistance, military and police oppression also took place. On July 30, 1975 hundreds of students peacefully marched the streets outside of the university demanding for human rights and their rights to protect the UES from military take over. Hundreds of students died on that day when militant shots were fired when the march was crossing under a bridge.  Having the opportunity to study at a university that has such an important history of student organizing was something surreal for me. I actually recognized different university locations from history book pictures. There are a lot of monuments and art murals pertaining to history, as well as current events, all over campus. Being able to take classes with Salvadoran students was also a beautiful experience. We got to learn about their reality as university students, talk and compare our struggles and lifestyles, and learn about their dreams and goals. They were more than happy to show us around their campus, the city, and share with us important knowledge.

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UES friends showing us around campus

During the weekends we took trips to different tourist locations as well as towns located in rural part of the country. One of the most inspiring trips we took was our visit to the departamento of Chalatenango. Chalate is located on the northern side of the country and borders with Honduras. We took a road up a mountain where we visited the towns of San Antonio Los Ranchos, San Jose de Las Flores, and Guarjila.  At San Antonio Los Ranchos, we visited “El Centro Cultural Jon Cortina.” The community center focuses on different art forms for children and adolescents. The arts classes aim to promote creativity as well as consciousness. In Guarjila, we visited the “Casa Museo Jon Cortina.” Jon Cortina was a Jesuit priest whom dedicated his life to helping Salvadorans during and after the civil war. He founded the organization Pro-Busqueda, which dedicates its efforts to searching for missing children from the civil war. When we got to the center we walked in right as the group of Pro-Busqueda was having a discussion, sharing how their life was before the civil war and remembering their children. We got to hear from a man whom had recently got in touch with his child, whom was taken away from him during the war and given up for adoption to an Italian couple. He said his story with so much joy, tears of happiness were running down his face. In San Jose de Las Flores we visited a town that is 100% community driven. This town was dislocated and forced out of their land during the civil war. When the war ended the people went back to their land and reconstructed their homes from the bottom up. The people of the town work together on different social programs, ranging from agriculture to education, which aid children, adolescents, and adults. The communal vibe was definitely present everywhere around us.

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Admiring the beauty of El Salvador

Other trips we took were to Lago Coatepeque, La Puerta del Diablo, El Volcan Izalco, Las Ruinas de San Andres y Las Ruinas de Tazumal, and another personal favorite La Ruta de Las Flores where we visited different indigenous towns. We also had the opportunity to speak to important political activists, political representatives, and visit various FMLN (The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front is the current political party governing El Salvador) community centers whom allowed us to join in on their meetings.

This trip to El Salvador transformed pictures and words read into reality. I learned about my history, my roots, and current events.  While the media only chooses to display the violence of my country I saw a whole other side that involves love, dedication, and community organizing for the better good. I heard stories from war survivors which touched every part of my soul. I learned the importance of preserving our country’s historic memory. I saw the natural beauty that El Salvador has to offer and most importantly I connected and learned from all different types of people. My love and passion for travel was discovered because of this trip. I remember sitting at my tia’s house in El Salvador filling out study abroad application to Brazil and my mother saying, “tu me quieres matar con tus locuras!” It has been a non-stop travel journey from then but I never forget the trip that began it all and I always carry a piece of El Salvador in my heart.

My Brazilian Internship (Part 4) – Salvador, Brasilia, and Chapada Diamantina

Nature and color. These are the two aspects of another country I like to focus on when I visit. I love to observe the different vegetation, geological structures, smell, and overall layout of the natural setting of a country. Color is observed on buildings, clothing, artwork, and historical objects, and it’s fun to analyze whether there is a pattern within different areas, the race or class of the people walking around, or the age of the objects or people in question. A new country is my classroom, and I am the ever eager anthropological student carefully studying my surroundings.

The historical downtown district of Salvador called Pelourinho

The historical downtown district of Salvador called Pelourinho

I had the pleasure of visiting Salvador 3 different weekends, Brasilia once for a grad school classmate reunion, and the national park Chapada Diamantina. Salvador and Chapada Diamantina are both in the province of Bahia. Brasilia is the federal capital of Brazil. All three of these areas were very different from what I have described previously about the rural areas I was living in for 2 months, or the time I spent in Rio. Considering this, it was a constant reminder of how expanse Brazil is as a country.

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The 3rd Annual Latino Gala

Cosmic Origins: Celebrando Nuestras Raices

Latino Culture Show sneak-peak
Latino Gala Scholarship Award- High School Seniors
Commemoration to graduating seniors
Commemoration to community member
Live Music
Art Exhibition
Poetry
Dance Performance
Free Food: University Catering
DJ and open dancing

*Formal Attire Requested*

Purpose: The 2010 Latino Gala is an opportunity for the University of Michigan Latino community and allies to come together in unity, and celebrate Latino success on campus and beyond. We will be commemorating the accomplishments of community members off campus, graduating seniors, and graduating high school seniors. In addition, we will showcase different forms of expression of art that represent our culture.

An important question: How do your origins as a Latino make you unique, yet still connect you to other Latinos?

The idea that our origins are “cosmic” is that it represents our culture which is diverse, extensive, far-reaching and constantly evolving. Cosmic is defined as global, huge, immense, infinite, limitless, universal, and vast. The Latino culture consists of Indigenous roots, African roots, European roots, Arabic roots, and the list goes on. Whether you speak Spanish or not, we want to embrace Latino culture with its heterogeneous components.

This is open to Latino students, allies, faculty, staff, and the community outside of UM.

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10th Annual Latin@ Culture Show
Date: Friday, April 16th 2010
Time: 7pm
Location: Lydia Mendelssohn Theater
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Obama to speak at my Graduation – 2010

This May 2010, University of Michigan seniors will be graduating with an honorable speaker. President Barack Obama is to speak at my graduation, at time where graduates will find it hard to find jobs in this market.

In the Detroit News, I am quoted: “It’s really important for him to connect with the youth and not leave them out,” said Alexandra Tracy, a Lake Orion senior who will be in the crowd of U-M graduates.” Youth are the future.

That quote is connected to my work at The Young People’s Project – Michigan.