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Meet Josefa Muñoz, Ph.D. Student

June 21, 2024

From volunteer to NOAA Fisheries-funded graduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi, learn more about Josefa Muñoz’s sea turtle journey.

a group photo of 2022 Guam Sea Turtle Research Internship Josefa Muñoz (top row, fourth from left) and her interns on their first day of in-field training for the 2022 Guam Sea Turtle Research Internship. Credit: Jazmin Samonte.

Where is your cultural or home connection? 

My cultural and home connection is rooted in Guam. My CHamoru upbringing taught me inafa’maolek, meaning “to make good” in CHamoru. Inafa’maolek is the restoration of harmony and it is the foundation of CHamoru culture. An inafa’maolek tenet is showing respect to not only elders, family, and community, but also to the land we live on. Customs like this highlight our belief that all of nature should be respected. This connection to nature instilled in me a sense of stewardship of Guam’s land and sea and a drive to restore its harmony. Altogether, this influenced my decision to pursue the marine biology field and contribute to the conservation of protected species. Additionally, my cultural connection gives me an extra layer of motivation to devote my marine biology Ph.D., and my lifelong career, towards Pacific Islands sea turtle research and protection.

taking small sample from a sea turtle
Josefa Muñoz obtains a small biopsy sample from a green turtle hatchling before releasing it to the ocean. These samples will provide information on the mating strategies and breeding sex ratio of Guam’s green turtles. Credit: Eric Cruz, taken under USFWS Permit #TE72088A-3

What is your science and education journey so far? 

As a University of Guam undergraduate, I wanted to serve my island community and subsequently volunteered as a Haggan (“turtle” in CHamoru) Watch Program research intern. This program fed my strong interest in marine research and ignited my passion for sea turtle conservation. It led to my selection for the Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience where I characterized rainforest bird vocalizations in Costa Rica. Later, I was selected for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship in California where I studied deep-sea bacteria. My participation in these internships broadened my perspective and approach to scientific research. They provided a strong research background in experimental design, data analysis, writing skills, and scientific communication that I readily apply as a graduate student. Most importantly, they gave me the confidence to believe that as a female Pacific Islander, I can pursue an advanced degree, a STEM career, and represent my CHamoru people—especially CHamoru women—in a broader scientific community.

Josefa Muñoz working on a sea turtle
Josefa Muñoz applies a satellite tag on a Guam nesting green turtle to track its inter-nesting movement and post-nesting migration. Credit: Josefa Muñoz, taken under USFWS Permit #TE72088A-3

After graduating from UOG, I worked as a sea turtle biologist where I resumed nesting beach monitoring. My fascination with Guam’s sea turtles grew exponentially, and I was certain I wanted to pursue a graduate degree and fill knowledge gaps. Concurrently, I met my mentors and was awarded National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program funding, which made my graduate education possible. I became a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa marine biology Ph.D. student and have been closely collaborating with the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center Marine Turtle Biology and Assessment Program for my research. Currently, I am in the Center’s Quantitative Ecology and Socioeconomics Training Program.

What is your graduate research about? 

Since Mariana Islands sea turtles are understudied, I was determined to devote my dissertation towards establishing baseline information of Guam’s endangered nesting green turtles. I am studying three main areas.

Josefa Muñoz with a sea turtle biopsy
Josefa Muñoz poses with green turtle biopsy samples after reaching her goal despite facing typhoons and nest predation. She is grateful to all collaborators who helped her with this achievement. Credit: Josefa Muñoz, taken under USFWS Permit #TE72088A-3

Mating Strategies & Breeding Sex Ratio

Warmer nest temperatures produce more female hatchlings making climate change a concern for populations worldwide. With suspected feminization of Guam’s green turtles, where more than 90 percent may be female, I aim to determine if they have one or many mates, which can be a buffer for the potentially female-skewed bias. I also aim to determine the breeding sex ratio  by counting the number of turtle moms and dads that successfully contribute to Guam’s green turtle population.

Turtle Moms On the Move

Understanding the inter-nesting movement of Guam’s nesting green turtles is crucial for local conservation. Using satellite tracking, which can give exact locations of animals using the GPS, I aim to find the ranges of the inter-nesting movements by Guam’s turtle moms. This will help define important in-water habitat that may need protection during the nesting season.

You Are Where You Eat

I use satellite tracking and stable isotope analysis to study animal migrations. This analysis uses the chemical makeup of an animal’s skin tissue to indicate what it eats and the environment it lives in. Therefore, stable isotopes can reveal an animal’s previous location (e.g., feeding area) when it is encountered on the nesting beach in Guam. This chemical analysis paired with tracking data is an integrative approach to potentially determine Guam’s sea turtle feeding areas, and the latter can be used to precisely determine migration routes.

What sea turtle work has been especially interesting or inspiring to you? 

Sea turtle work that is novel to an understudied population and involves strong collaboration between diverse teams has always been inspiring to me. I modeled my fieldwork after this framework by introducing new research on Guam’s nesting turtles and also brought together various agencies. I’m most proud of involving the community and students in my research. I created the Sea Turtle Research Internship, where I trained 10 students per field season in conducting sea turtle work. In this way, the students gained valuable hands-on field experience in their backyard working with an endangered species. I offered this opportunity to this particular group because I was once in their position as an undergraduate. These students were so inspiring to work alongside. I hope that I can inspire them to conduct innovative work on Guam’s protected species and bring together the community while doing so. 

What does a typical day look like for you? 

My role involves carrying out sea turtle research projects from start to finish. It is very satisfying to lead and execute the full scientific research process from the experimental design, preparation, and logistics; to data collection in the field; analyzing data and samples in the laboratory; and publishing those results. Lastly, I love presenting my research at scientific conferences and providing outreach to students and the public to equip them with knowledge about sea turtles.

What advice do you have for future students starting their career in marine conservation?  

Josefa Muñoz doing research on the beach
Josefa Muñoz measures green turtle track widths after Super Typhoon Mawar directly passed over the nesting beach affecting about 25 nests. Josefa had to re-start her project focused on green turtle mating strategies and breeding sex ratios, which required live hatchlings for sampling. Credit: Addie Ferguson, taken under USFWS Permit #TE72088A-3.

Sharpen Soft Skills as Much as Hard Skills

Having technical knowledge is important in marine conservation; soft skills are overlooked—but needed—for this field. Key soft skills include communicating well, adaptability, and being dependable and respectful, all of which are important for teamwork. Additional important soft skills include persevering, demonstrating empathy towards colleagues and the community, prioritizing diversity and inclusion, and having cultural awareness. Having these soft skills opened many doors for me and I suggest focusing on building and utilizing them as much as the hard skills. 

Build and Maintain Bridges with Professionals and Community 

Networking was always intimidating, but I recommend that future students network. I met many professionals on my science journey and I’m grateful I learned from each person. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my network. Additionally, I strongly advise building a network with the people where you’re conducting your science. It is important to establish and maintain relationships and trust with this community. Involving my home community in my research is so rewarding and I enjoy empowering them with the knowledge of Guam’s sea turtles through my research and sharing sea turtle experiences with them.

Use Self-Confidence to Overcome Imposter Syndrome 

Being raised in CHamoru culture taught me to maintain humility. I appreciate the CHamoru culture for favoring this beautiful value. However, it left me in a bind as a graduate student. For example, humility will come in the form of speaking only when spoken to, being shy when sharing input, putting others first, and the fear of highlighting one’s accomplishments. This, combined with imposter syndrome, heightened my self-doubt. I still struggle with this, but many mentors taught me that humility and confidence are not mutually exclusive. So I’d like to remind future students that it’s okay to maintain humbleness but also have confidence in themselves and their abilities. Lastly, you’re not an imposter and all your hard work and skills have gotten you to where you are today!

Last updated by Office of Protected Resources on June 25, 2024