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HomeCosta RicaKarol Ulate-Naranjo: Passion for the Ocean and Protecting Costa Rica’s Marine Biodiversity

Karol Ulate-Naranjo: Passion for the Ocean and Protecting Costa Rica’s Marine Biodiversity

An enormous passion for the ocean and its inhabitants runs through the veins of Karol Ulate Naranjo. Originally from San Francisco de Dos Ríos, Karol attended primary school at Escuela España and high school at Liceo de San Antonio de Desamparados ( the same high school that NASA’s Joe and Alex Mora attended). Karol completed her bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology at the Universidad Nacional (UNA) and obtained her master’s degree and doctorate at the Center for Biological Research of the Northwest in Baja California, Mexico.

She works as a professor, teaching courses such as Marine Fauna and Biostatistics and conducts research on protected marine areas with a focus on understanding the distribution patterns of organisms.

What did you have to sacrifice to achieve your professional goals?

Marine biology is a career in which the academic level  required is becoming more difficult as more university degrees are required. The licentiate’s degree is harder than the bachelor’s degree, the master’s degree is harder than the licentiate, and the doctorate pushes the limits not only of the mind, but of the human body. It is so hard that not all people can deal with the stress and must resign before obtaining their doctorate degree.

Still, after nearly 17 years of studying to earn my PhD, I must read scientific articles every day to catch up on discoveries around the world. It is a career that never ends because those who do not update themselves lose track of the advances in science and cannot properly transmit knowledge.

For this reason I consider myself an eternal student in order to give my very best to the students. I have never considered hard work a sacrifice. Rather, I thank the universe for all the opportunities it has offered me to develop as a professional with the goal of getting the most out of it in the future.

Who is your role model?

As a marine biologist my greatest inspiration has always been Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

What are values that should be promoted to young people today?

The value of hard work to get what you want. Many young people find it difficult to understand the value of things, they want everything, and they are given what they want without understanding the meaning of the efforts behind those objects. My parents never claimed what things cost them, but they taught me to work hard to get them and that is the best learning: with deeds and not with words.

When did you realize that you wanted to study marine biology?

My parents took me to swimming lessons from the age of five and later I trained with the San Jose swim team until I was in my teens. Always being in the water and watching the most impressive videos of underwater excursions by Jacques-Yves Cousteau made me develop a love for the ocean, until I wanted to integrate it as part of my life. As a child it was one of the most televised programs on Costa Rican channels.

What have been the high and low points of your career?

My classmates always made hard study enjoyable and not only did we learn a lot together, but we enjoyed every minute of it. Until today, many of us remain very good friends. I enjoyed the privilege of studying abroad. In 2008 I was selected for a full scholarship abroad by the UNA.

The process to achieve it was full of critical and decisive moments, since I was going to be out of Costa Rica for more than six years. Before choosing the university for my postgraduate studies I had the opportunity to travel  to Baja California in Mexico, a place that I instantly fell in love with. I was not the only one, Jacques Cousteau named it ‘the aquarium of the world’ due to its calm, clear and lively waters.

It can be said that it is the paradise of marine biologists, with a 90% similarity to the marine species found in Costa Rica, and three prestigious marine biology academic and research centers. In fact, La Paz, Baja California Sur, is known as a science city, where the majority of residents are students from different universities. For these reasons I decided to apply to one of those research centers.

The most prestigious is the Center for Biological Research of the Northwest, SC (CIBNOR), in La Paz,  Baja California Sur, Mexico. I prepared myself to pass the rigorous admission processes, since in my heart I knew that CIBNOR was my place of study. I started the master’s program in 2009 and it was quite a challenge.

The pace and demand were really hard, but the high-quality training I received at UNA had provided me with all the tools and the temperament to keep going. While other colleagues deserted in the face of stress, I fortunately managed to pass the test, finishing in the required time and entered the doctorate program.

Once there, I had the opportunity to join the work of a group of researchers dedicated to marine ecology called the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, which works with the Reef Fauna Project of the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur. They have more than 15 years of monitoring the eastern coast of the Gulf of California, which has an extension of 1500 km  (three times the length of Costa Rica).

The group has a large staff of experienced and trained divers to recognize species underwater, with the goal of cataloging them without extracting or disturbing them in any way. This is a difficult accomplishment to achieve for the conservation of species.

What have been your main achievements and what are your aspirations for the future?

I want to elevate the position of the UNA and continue to give back everything it has given me, with a lot of effort and work on my part. One of the first and most important lessons in Baja California is that each species is equal in importance. The researchers I worked with counted and measured all marine species larger than 1 cm at rocky reef monitoring sites – quite a challenge!

They had managed to catalog around 140 species of macroinvertebrates and 150 fish. I learned a great life lesson: these species together told a different story than when viewed separately. I set out to apply that knowledge to the research I was going to do upon my return to Costa Rica. During my doctorate I learned to use many tools for research, chosen with the idea of being able to apply them in Costa Rica.

I met colleagues from other countries that when they entered the labor market could not apply what they had learned in their daily work, since they had specialized in one or two species and were using expensive machines. For this reason I concentrated on tools and techniques that could be replicated anywhere in the world, such as Geographic Information Systems, Geostatistics and Ecological Niche Modeling, which only needs monitoring and computers to process the information obtained.

These tools allowed me to understand the reasons why the species distributed the way they did, and the determining factors of the presence or absence of a species in a specific area. I conducted research on over 100 species of macroinvertebrates separately to put together the puzzle, to observe their behavior together, and to understand the role each played in the ecosystem.

The species I studied included corals, mollusca (snails, clams and octopuses), starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, crabs, shrimp, lobsters, and sea sponges, among others.

I returned to my beautiful Costa Rica, to my alma mater, UNA, with all the tools and lived experiences abroad to continue as a professor and researcher. I have arrived at the right time, because the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) has started its Ecological Monitoring Plan for Protected Areas, with the contributions of the academic group from UNA –we carry out the monitoring and the interpretation of the data obtained with scientific rigor.

Through the alliance between several colleagues, SINAC and its group of park rangers, we began monitoring marine protected areas in 2018. We include observation sites outside these areas, in order to collate the data collected and obtain the health index of our marine protected areas.

All the monitoring has been done under the premise of not altering the marine landscape, without extracting or disturbing the species, including the observable ones on the marine substrate (macrofauna). In this way we will be able to observe all organisms as a complete ecosystem just like in my first lessons in Baja California. Now I can apply and integrate my knowledge to serve my country.

So far we have analyzed the following marine protected areas: Santa Rosa National Park (Murciélago Islands), Cabo Blanco Absolute Natural Reserve, Ostional Wildlife Refuge, Cocos Island. Unprotected locations we have monitored are: Cuajiniquil, Sámara and Tortuga Island.

We are writing a monitoring protocol in these rocky reef ecosystems, so that it can be implemented in all the areas that have them. We hope SINAC administrators will have more tools to understand the underwater part of the resource that they protect and have better inputs for their decision-making processes.

How do you face challenges and limitations?

When I finished my doctorate, besides being tired I was very happy to return to my country, be reunited with family and return to the university that had made all those achievements possible. I was always proud to be a UNA student, so being a UNA worker filled me with even more anticipation.

However, I returned to a country with a different situation than the one I had left in previous years. I perceived resentment from Costa Rican people towards public universities, and I felt (and still feel) they have suffered a loss of prestige at the national level. We are called privileged public officials, up to the point where being in an institutional car with university logos, outsiders would point at it with angry expressions.

Just an example: Colleagues and I have seen people with looks of disapproval towards us when we are coming home from a field trip very late at night. If we were coming in an institutional car it was because the budget wasn’t enough to cover our accommodations, regardless of how exhausted or late we were coming home. Other colleagues have even had things shouted at them in the street. People call us privileged as if it were something shameful about it.

However, I really feel privileged and I am not ashamed of it, especially if we understand that in Latin America not all countries have very low-cost university education, and plenty of access to full scholarships. In other Latin American countries, the few who get a university degree are in debt for life, so many choose not to access these services.

Nelson Mandela said: “Only the education of the masses can liberate my people”. If only some are educated, many others will be oppressed. The Universidad Nacional, as well as the other public Costa Rican universities, has guaranteed the access of the poorest to public higher education, where more than 75% of the new students come from public schools.

Although it is true that the administration of these institutions must improve –and I am sure that they will–,  people must recognize the service they have given to the entire country and must support them. So, I feel, and I will continue to feel proud to be part of the UNA.

Do you think the contributions of women in the fields of science and technology are different from that of men or not?

No. We don’t have to consider ourselves different. We are all human beings and should be valued for our achievements not for our gender.

What is the main challenge facing humanity today?

Surviving the distortion that social networks have generated in human relationships. I don’t have any social network (I only use WhatsApp), and still I can feel its negative effects. I see that people do not want to interact as before and hide behind their phones to indirectly say what they think.

I also believe that they have given tools to toxic people, which in the past had a short range, but now they spread like wildfire on the web. As humanity, we must begin to channel information in social media for a better life for everyone. Not the opposite.

What initiatives would you recommend to encourage female participation in science and technology?

Science must be promoted to achieve common achievements, not to focus on our gender. Whoever wants to excel can do it regardless of gender. We are more than bodies, we are minds. We are not white, black or Chinese, neither tall nor short, neither short nor skinny, nor men or women. We are powerful minds working for the same end.

Learn more about Karol in the book The Intrepids in Science & Technology published by Editorial Tecnologica:

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