Puerto Rican scientist studies humpback whales off the west coast of the United States with the goal of returning to Puerto Rico

With her sights set on returning to Puerto Rico and contributing to local knowledge of the species, the Puerto Rican scientist Charlene Perez Santos investigates two subpopulations of Humpback whales on the west coast of USA –one in danger of extinction and another threatened–, in order to determine if their route coincides with ship routes and the potential risk they face when moving to reproduce in a bay of Mexico.

Pérez Santos' research is part of the master's degree he is pursuing at the Marine Mammal Institute of the Oregon State Universitywhere she was admitted, in 2023, after winning the prestigious scholarship from Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem Studies –affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, in English)–, becoming the first Puerto Rican to obtain it.

23 years old and originally from Areciboexplained that, with his analysis, he seeks “see what routes the whales are taking, what routes the ships are taking and if they match. So what is the risk that that whale could have, because she is taking the same route as the ship. It is knowing its impact on the boats and fishmongers, the nets and areas where they fish.”

In order to continue his master's degree, Pérez Santos recently qualified for a scholarship from Cooperative Living Marine Resources Science Center –also attached to NOAA– and would receive additional financial support. Once she finishes her studies, in June 2025, the scientist plans to return to Puerto Rico to help undergraduate students interested – like her – in specializing in marine mammals.

Charlene Pérez Santos completed a bachelor's degree in marine biology at the UPR in Humacao. (Supplied)

“Right now, with all the news that has been seen about humpback whales in Puerto Rico or other types of whales, (the reality is that) not much is known about it (the species). I hope that's the research for my PhD. Plus, there's nothing like Puerto Rico. “Puerto Rico is a paradise and there is nothing like providing information about conservation to the island where you grew up”he stated, after thanking his mentor for his support, Joshua Stewart.

He looked for opportunities

Before arriving at Oregon State University – where she is also the first Puerto Rican at the Marine Mammal Institute – the graduate of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in Humacao She faced a difficult path due to the high competitiveness in her area of ​​study, in addition to her internal struggle to overcome the fears that made her doubt her ability to achieve it.

“I was raised by a veteran father and my mother was never able to finish her studies. But, thanks to God and to them, for her unconditional support and her persistence in all of this, He showed me that, 'if you have to fight for something that is not necessarily in Puerto Rico, do it'he explained about the advice of his parents, Carlos perez and Aidyn Santos.

One of the opportunities that came his way – he said – “was to attend a NOAA internship.” “That, for me, was something big. At that boarding school, I had the opportunity to travel to the state of Maine and I got involved in a project that was about the fishing that is happening there and, at the same time, its relationship to how the whales were being affected by this fishery. While I was there, I let the scientists I knew know that I was interested in marine mammals.”he highlighted.

The young scientist admitted that she had doubts about whether she would achieve her academic goals and that even university professors questioned her potential.
The young scientist admitted that she had doubts about whether she would achieve her academic goals and that even university professors questioned her potential. (Supplied)

Upon returning to Puerto Rico to complete his last year of high school in marine biology, Pérez Santos did not waste time and applied for admission to different programs at American universities related to his academic goal.

“Honestly, marine biology is the most competitive branch to get into. It is such an expensive branch that research is very limited, scholarships and all that. Obviously, as a student at the UPR in Humacao, who had not necessarily had much experience with marine mammals, I was overcome by imposter syndrome (inability to evaluate skills realistically) and all these things made me doubt.”he admitted.

“I remember that, at the UPR in Humacao, a professor told me: 'Charlene, I think you should start thinking about other areas of marine biology, because a girl like you is not going to be able to get there.' He wasn't a bad teacher, although he didn't see the potential in me. But I knew that was what he wanted and I wanted to show him that I could be the first to achieve it.”he shared.

Pérez Santos moved to Oregon in September 2023 and appreciates how “opportunities are opening up where there are none.”

“I am very grateful for my parents, who taught me to fight and not give up. From all the experiences I have had, I have learned that I am one who deserves to be here, because I am a scientist, a woman, a Latina and the first Puerto Rican who was able to get here to fulfill this dream.”celebrated.