Juita Martinez’s interest in biology started early, and now she’s poised to reach the top of her field.
“I was that weird kid, watching ants and following snails,” she says.
“It wasn't probably until high school that I learned, well, I could actually get paid to do this and for the rest of my life, and it would be amazing!”
Gulf Coast Opportunities
After earning a bachelor’s degree in zoology at Humboldt State University, Martinez learned about an opportunity to study Louisiana’s seabird ecology under Paul Leberg, John E. and Joretta Achee Chance Professor of Biology.
“At the time, I was really into seabirds! I knew that was the path I wanted to take,” she says.
A phone call discussing the Ph.D. program in environmental and evolutionary biology with Leberg solidified her decision to join UL Lafayette.
Martinez was also selected for a BoR-SREB Doctoral Scholars Fellowship. The fellowship program works to confront the lack of diversity among college faculty by supporting underrepresented minority students in doctoral programs who will pursue careers in academia.
“It was an offer I couldn't refuse. I also felt like this place could be home, and it is,” she says.
“I love everyone in our department and the support system is amazing. One of the best things you can have in grad school is support from every tier, from the Graduate School to your fellow students.”
Martinez’s research has focused on the ecological implications of Louisiana’s coastal restoration projects. Using non-invasive field techniques such as camera traps and band re-sightings, she monitors bird populations on Louisiana’s barrier islands.
“Billions of dollars have been spent on trying to repair the coast. But not much is known on how this affects the wildlife that utilizes those areas. I'm looking at how this affects chicks, and brown pelican chicks specifically,” she says.
Science Goes Social
Martinez now shares her work on brown pelican populations with more than 13,000 Twitter followers. But she wasn’t always convinced of the platform’s potential.
“I was really against Twitter until my awesome graduate dean convinced me to make one, and it was the best decision I could have ever made! Just being able to network on an almost daily basis, even if that's 15 to 20 minutes a day,” she says.
“I learn so much from other people on Twitter, and I get to share my own research with whoever's out there and interested in reading my tweets. It's a win-win situation — utilize social media for sure!”
Martinez has also used Twitter to organize with other scientists and respond to encounters with racism and discrimination. She helped to organize #BlackBirdersWeek, which amplified the voices and experiences of Black birdwatchers, scientists, and nature lovers.
“Black Birders Week was started by a group created by Jason Ward, who's also on Twitter. It's basically a collective of 30 Black individuals who are nature enthusiasts, who are in STEM and in general, we just all really appreciate the outdoors,” she explains.
“We saw this lack in being able to utilize outdoor spaces safely. We saw that we could just show people that yes, we are out here. And yes, we should be able to utilize these spaces safely.”
Black Birders Week received coverage from numerous news outlets and was promoted by groups such as the National Audubon Society and the US National Park Service.
Aiming for Impact
For Martinez, success is something to be shared, and she fully intends to continue her work supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Once I'm completed with my Ph.D., as of right now, I really want to be a professor at an HBCU,” she says.
“I want to give the next generation of students that look like me an example to follow because I didn't really have that growing up. I want them to know that they can reach their goals, whatever that may be.”