Photo of Sabrina Cordero '19

Sabrina Cordero ’19 knew how to float and do the dog paddle, but with a Smith summer internship at a marine reserve in Belize on the horizon, she realized that wasn’t going to cut it. So, the first-generation Mexican American college student from Rialto, California, took both a swimming class and a scuba class to prepare. “It was a challenge,” says Cordero, a biological sciences and French studies major. But it paid off when she discovered the beauty of the undersea world and her love for the fragile ecosystem she found there.

I DISCOVERED MY INTEREST in the marine world through a course called Invertebrate Diversity. In 2017 I went with five other Smith students to San Pedro, Belize, with Smith’s Coral Reef Ed-Ventures. We did research in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

FOUR PEOPLE ON OUR TEAM were scuba certified, so we were able to dive and collect data. That was amazing—the first time I ever saw a coral reef, and I just fell in love. It was so beautiful seeing all the fish, all the invertebrates living there. It’s an entirely different world underwater.

ANOTHER PART OF THAT INTERNSHIP was teaching local children about concepts in marine biology. I taught a lesson on coral polyps, which are the individual coral that make up the coral reef. We ran an activity where we used a marshmallow and attached Twizzlers on it to show the little tentacles of the coral polyp. The kids loved it!

I DID A PROJECT LAST SUMMER with the NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] internship program in Florida, working on outplanted coral. With changing pH levels and all the things that come with climate change, corals are under attack. Scientists are taking fractions of coral communities and growing them in nurseries where the temperature, salinity and pH are controlled. Once the corals are old enough, they outplant them to existing reefs. When a new coral is placed into an existing reef, it can regenerate and produce a healthier reef.

A LOT OF DIFFERENT coral nurseries are doing this work, but there isn’t a way to keep track of how many nurseries there are or what species and genotypes are out there. So, over the summer I helped compile a database with all of that information.

I’M TURNING THE WORK I DID at NOAA into my honors thesis. It focuses on the status, threats and restoration of elkhorn and staghorn coral, which are two essential reef builders. These two corals are listed as threatened on the Endangered Species Act. Will they be around for my kids to see? My kids’ kids?

I PRESENTED IN OCTOBER in San Antonio at the SACNAS [Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science] conference on national diversity in STEM, and in December I’ll be at the first-ever coral restoration conference in the U.S.

I WANT TO GO to graduate school for marine biology with a focus on climate change, and ultimately I would like to have a Ph.D., but immediately post-graduation I want to work with children in science. That summer in Belize made me realize how important education is to me. Right now, that is my calling.

I’M JOINING TEACH FOR AMERICA in 2019. I’m going back to Los Angeles, where I grew up, to teach biology. I’ll get to work with kids that look like me, that sound like me. That’s where I feel like I can make the biggest difference.

SAQ, Winter 2019–19