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Meet Estrella Malca, Larval Ecologist

September 30, 2022

As part of the Faces of the Southeast Fisheries Science Center series, meet Estrella Malca.

Estrella aging larval bluefin using otolith microstructure analysis (daily increments are shown in blue). Estrella aging larval bluefin tuna using otolith microstructure analysis (daily increments are shown in blue). This particular fish is about 10 days old. Photo provided by Estrella Malca

Where did you grow up? 

I am originally from Peru. I lived in Paraguay for a few years, but I grew up and spent most of my life in Miami.

Where did you go to school and in what subject did you get your degree(s)?

I am a triple C-A-N-E. A Miami Hurricane, that is! I received a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s of Science, and I am staff at the University of Miami! I began as a biology major interested in wildlife animal conservation and research. My “occupancy” on Virginia Key, a barrier island off Miami, started while doing research in Dr. Pat Walsh’s lab with the gorgeous toadfish. These fish were mostly caught by Jimbo’s in Biscayne Bay, a low key, iconic place on the waterfront. I was able to continue my education using the benefits allotted to me as a full-time university staff member. I was persistent and slowly but surely obtained my Master’s of Science while working full time.

How did you come to work at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center?

Estrella running the winch at sea during a plankton tow aboard the R/V Roger Revelle earlier this year.
Estrella running the winch at sea during a plankton tow aboard the R/V Roger Revelle earlier this year. Photo provided by Estrella Malca

While doing my undergraduate senior thesis (age and growth of the toadfish) in 2002, I started interacting with center staff in Miami, including Dr. Joe Serafy. Joe and other Rosenstiel faculty helped my thesis become my first publication (thanks Joe!). I also did some field work in the Florida Keys while volunteering in the center’s Larval Fish Lab which was run by Dr. Bill Richards. At some point, Dr. Cynthia Yeung invited me to go to sea on the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter collecting plankton and I was hooked ever since. Soon after I began working as a NOAA affiliate for the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies. I started working part time sorting samples, doing field work, identifying larvae, removing and processing otoliths. I eventually became part of the full-time research team. Although many projects, students, and staff have come and gone, I am excited to still be here! My title is now a Senior Research Associate II.

What do you do at the science center?

I am a larval ecologist in the Trawl and Plankton Branch of the Population and Ecosystems Monitoring Division. I have worked with snappers, lobsters, eel larvae, and lionfish. Recently, I led larval oceanographic surveys and focused on highly migratory species such as western Atlantic bluefin tuna. I specialize in larval age and growth dynamics.

What do you like most about your position?

Estrella with 5 graduate students smiling at an outreach event.
Estrella Malca (fourth from right) at an outreach event for students in Miami Dade County hosted by the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science at the University of Miami. Also pictured are some very enthusiastic University of Miami graduate students. Pictured from left to right, Alejandro Jivanjee, Alex Flores, Estrella Malca, Bailey Ross, Alexus Philley and Andres Martinez (a volunteer from IMG Academy). Photo provided by Estrella Malca

Besides going to sea on multidisciplinary projects, mentoring has been a rewarding highlight. My NOAA advisors always made mentoring and teaching a priority no matter how busy we were. Throughout my tenure at the center’s Larval Fish Lab, we have carried out a lot of outreach activities and we worked closely with college students and interns. I enjoy teaching and mentoring students particularly those from underrepresented groups. That has been my favorite part.

What advice would you have for someone interested in a career at NOAA Fisheries?

Get in early! Volunteer, participate, and ask a lot of questions. Apply to all the scholarships you can handle, seek any and all opportunities and fellowships! Learn about NOAA Fisheries and other local institutions. Look up the people that work there and what they are doing, maybe you can volunteer or get a job to begin your professional experiences. It has been my experience that the younger generations can feed everyone with their energy and enthusiasm. They often remind us how we used to be and reignite some of that passion back into our day to day activities.

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?

Estrella pointing to a scientific poster she is presenting at the 45th Larval Fish Conference.
Estrella presenting a scientific poster at the 45th Larval Fish Conference. Photo provided by Estrella Malca

Although our numbers have increased in science, I have typically been the only Hispanic woman on a given team. This month provides an opportunity to remind us all that our various heritages have enriched this country and will continue to do so. We must respect and value one another, including our different experiences and cultures. 

Is there a book, quote, or person that influenced you to be the person that you are today? Tell us why.

My grandfather was a Navy Commander in Peru and the idea of the “sea” has always been part of our family’s identity. I have always been drawn to it, despite the chilly Peruvian Pacific waters. However, choosing to study the marine world was such a luxury for me at the time because of our limited financial possibilities after we migrated to the United States. I imagined I would not have many options after high school, but I tried my best anyway. This country is truly the land of opportunity, and I am grateful for that sea of possibility.  

What do you like to do outside of work?

A family selfie! Estrella hiking Mayan ruins in Mexico with her husband and son.
A family selfie! Estrella hiking Mayan ruins in Mexico with her husband and son. Photo provided by Estrella Malca

My side gig has been following my dream to obtain a doctoral degree, putting Ph.D. after my name. I am in my fourth year at Nova Southeastern University and hoping to defend my thesis this semester. However, this year my favorite activity has been going to the beach and playing in the sand with my son and husband. I used to go diving and snorkeling a lot before parenthood and graduate school happened. With a doctorate degree in hand, hopefully I can find a more permanent position and more time to spend in nature with my family.

Contact Estrella

Last updated by Southeast Fisheries Science Center on February 27, 2023