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Sonia Ortega

Sonia Ortega, PhD

I was born in Carazo, Nicaragua and grew up with my mother and three sisters. During this time my family lived in many different places in Central America, and I attended elementary and high school in Honduras and college in Costa Rica. This experience exposed me to people of many different countries. I learned that not everyone thinks the same as you do. Moving around so often also made me very adaptable to new situations.
My father died when I was eleven years old. He left no debts, but no money, either. There was no insurance money for my mother to collect. Within a month of my father’s death, my maternal grandmother also died, leaving my mother entirely alone. She had no father, or siblings to lean on, and she had no education to help her get a job. Mom worked during the day, and in the evenings and weekends she spent her time as a seamstress to supplement her salary. Those were very hard times for all of us. My mom kept telling us that if she had an education, our situation would be different. She encouraged us to study to be able to support ourselves and made every effort to provide us with an education.
I liked school. I was an avid learner, and I thought that school was fun. I did very well in elementary, high school and college. I received a fellowship to come to the U.S. for graduate school. It was then that I experienced my first culture shock. I learned English in the summer before I started graduate school. I realized when I got there that one summer of English had not prepared me to compete at Duke University. I had a very hard time making it through school. I thought about quitting more than once but I knew that if I left, the possibilities of getting another opportunity would be gone. Because of my poor English, some professors and fellow students thought that I was not smart enough to be in graduate school. Those were very difficult years for me. What kept me going was a strong desire to persevere. I’d never studied so hard in my life.
I have always enjoyed nature. I used to collect insects and butterflies in the neighborhood when I was a child. I thought they were neat. Later on, I was influenced by the Jacques Cousteau films about the oceans. I thought that being underwater was thrilling and that there was a whole world there to discover. I was the oddball in my family, always thinking about adventures and places to go. I thought that being an explorer or an archaeologist in Egypt or Greece would be so much fun. Unfortunately, those careers were available only to people in developed countries. I also wanted to be a pilot and was fascinated by crop dusters which flew over cotton fields in northern Nicaragua. I chose biology as my major in college because that was the subject I found closest to my interests. I was greatly influenced by biology professors early on in college.
My training is in marine biology. Before I came to the National Science Foundation, I worked as a research associate at the Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina. I conducted research there on the populations of oysters to find out why the oyster fishery was going down. My research involved setting experiments in local estuaries to look at the settlement and growth of oysters under different environmental conditions to find out where oysters grew best. Prior to that I spent a considerable amount of time in Costa Rica studying the interactions among the animals that live on rocky shores such as barnacles and limpets. I was trying to find out why some animals were more abundant in some places than in others, and why other animals were absent from some shores. I was also looking at the effect of fish on the abundance of these animals.
My job now is directly related to providing funding for research. My scientific background helps me administer programs to support research for scientists and engineers. We receive applications for fellowships, we seek people to help us review the applications and with this input, make decisions as to who will get funding.
Never miss a chance to learn, because you never know when your skills could be useful. Everything is possible when you set your mind to it. Trust yourself and follow your dreams. After all these years, my dream to become a pilot came true. It’s never too late to learn. Maybe someday I’ll be an archaeologist!