Two alumnae of the URI Graduate School of Oceanography were honored at the 24th annual Women of Color STEM Conference. Catalina Martinez (M.S. ‘99) and Sheekela Baker-Yeboah (Ph.D. ‘08) were among the more than 50 women to receive awards at the Detroit ceremony sponsored by Women of Color Magazine.
Martinez, who received the Diversity Leadership in Government award, is a Regional Program Manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (NOAA OER). She began her ocean science career in 2002 as a John A. Knauss Marine Policy Sea Grant Fellow at NOAA OER in Washington, D.C., and the nascent office hired her immediately following her fellowship.
“It was an exciting time, as NOAA OER was a brand new Federal office with a unique charge—to explore regions of the world ocean we know little or nothing about,” says Martinez.
After moving back to Rhode Island to start a regional office for NOAA OER at URI in 2004, Martinez managed collaborations between NOAA OER, GSO and the Ocean Exploration Trust, helping to conduct joint research and development expeditions, and paving the way for the adoption of ship-to-shore telepresence technology.
As a Latina from Providence, R.I. who dropped out of high school to support herself and help support her family, Martinez has a career-long commitment to serving as an advocate and mentor to others with similar backgrounds. “I have focused on exploring, identifying and breaking down barriers to entry for underrepresented individuals into STEM opportunities, academic programs and the workforce,” says Martinez. “Not only do I work with a dedicated group within NOAA on these issues, but also with a talented team at URI, who are as committed as I am to embracing difference and broadening the reach of STEM opportunities for groups historically and consistently underrepresented in these fields.”
In addition to her master’s degree in oceanography, Martinez has earned three degrees at the University of Rhode Island: a bachelor’s degree in zoology (‘97), a master’s of marine affairs (‘02) and an M.B.A. (‘14).
Baker-Yeboah, who was honored at the Oct. 5 ceremony as a 2019 Technology Rising Star, is a NOAA Affiliate Research Scientist through the University of Maryland. The Oak Vale, Miss. native earned her bachelor’s in mathematics and master’s in oceanography from the University of Southern Mississippi at Stennis Space Center, where she worked with scientists from the Naval Research Laboratory. As an employee of URI, she was a Research Scientist and continued her studies in physical oceanography. After earning her doctorate at URI GSO, Baker-Yeboah did her postdoctoral training at MIT, became a Visiting Professor at Lesley University and then at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. In 2015 Baker-Yeboah joined NOAA and now works at the agency’s Center for Satellite Applications and Research where she uses satellite data to help develop products for a variety of applications. “One of the most rewarding aspects of working with NOAA is being an integral part of an organization that serves our nation, from people who use satellite data to surf ocean waves to others needing it for search-and-rescue efforts to help those in need,” she says.
As an African-American oceanographer, Baker-Yeboah believes strongly in following the path of other trailblazing women of color in the science and technology fields. “I continue to overcome obstacles, and I try to give back to others, especially to those in the STEM community,” she says.
Martinez says there are many complex issues that need to be addressed before the broader STEM community can become truly inclusive of underrepresented women of color. “Beyond a much needed culture shift, ensuring that women of color are encouraged, recruited, championed and mentored, and provided leadership opportunities at the same level and rate as their majority peers, would simultaneously bring the appropriate perspectives to the table and create the momentum to carry us all forward, and upward,” says Martinez.
Martinez says that receiving the Women of Color STEM award has provided important validation that her career-long focus on breaking down barriers to entry for underrepresented people of color in STEM is valued. “Because I was nominated by several of my amazing peers in NOAA and by a few close friends and colleagues from the incredible team I work with at URI, this is very meaningful to me,” says Martinez. “I am deeply honored to receive this award, and completely humbled when I see the impressive list of past honorees.”