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Paleontologist Myria Perez Wants More Women in Science and for Everyone to Be Safe

Myria Perez is the bone collector. Well, preparator.EXPAND
Myria Perez is the bone collector. Well, preparator.
IF THEN initiative/Sprouse and Neuhoff

Myria Perez is much smaller than her coworkers, and the only one who's non-extinct. The Houston-born paleontologist is a fossil preparator at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

“My duty is to take care of, prepare, prep, clean up fossils that are brought into our lab for our research and collection,” she says of her job at the museum.

Perez's love affair with paleontology began when she was little.

"Like most kids, I kind of caught that fossil fever," she says, looking back at her childhood. "Kids become very obsessed with paleontology and with dinosaurs. ... I never grew out of it."

That fever grew deeper when Perez became a volunteer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science when she was 12, where she "gained mentors and so much experience in the field."

From there, she pursued degrees in geology and anthropology, "which is the closest you can get sometimes to paleo," at Southern Methodist University, Perez says. 

A professor at SMU was teaching paleontology, and she continued fossil prep as an undergrad. Those studies led to her current position at the Perot Museum.

Perez says her favorite dinosaur changes. “I think right now it’s the Therizinosaurus; it reminds me of Wolverine a little bit — the claws are extremely long, and it is a very interesting looking animal."

The fossil preparator has one particular bone to pick with her academic and work environment: The lack of women in the STEM fields. STEM stands for "science, technology, engineering and mathematics," and women aren't pursuing those fields of education. One study indicates that less than a third (28.8%) of those working in scientific research and development across the world are female.

Perez is an AAAS IF/THEN ambassador, an initiative to educate and inspire young girls to pursue careers in STEM disciplines.

"There’s about 125 amazing ambassadors that were chosen to show the world and to show particularly young girls how fun and exciting science can be," Perez explains. "We connect with students in person or through various media platforms and we share what we do and we kind of provide a model, like a role model, to advance education opportunities for young girls and really any person."

One of those platforms is the Geena Davis-produced CBS TV show Mission Unstoppable, hosted by Miranda Cosgrove, where Perez will be a guest on Saturday, May 16.

Cosgrove is a Gen Z icon, who's best known for her shows ICarly, Drake and Josh and the Jack White comedy School of Rock.

“I’m very excited,” Perez says of her upcoming prerecorded appearance on the show. “They reached out, and of course I took this pretty awesome opportunity.”

"Normally, through my job I do get to share what I do with kids at the museum and kind of through local platforms," Perez says. "But this Mission Unstoppable gives me an opportunity to share nationally, and during this weird time I think it’s really good that people have a way of seeing different STEM fields and science in a fun, exciting way."

Perez is also starring in a PSA with Cosgrove and other leading women scientists that focuses on the #StaySafeForScience campaign.

"Stay Safe for Science is a super, really cool opportunity for kids to get involved with fighting COVID-19," Perez explains of the social media challenge and PSA. "It’ll actually air this kind of call for action during a block during Mission Unstoppable on Saturday, and so if kids can share the hashtag [then] Litton Entertainment and Lyda Hill Philanthropies will give a dollar to the CDC Foundation and John Hopkins Center for Health Security; so this is something that kids can make a difference directly by sharing that hashtag, which I think is so cool... that gives kids an opportunity to fight and be a part of this and be active."

It seems like there hasn’t been such widespread interest in science as there has been in the last few months. There’s also been an abundance of anti-science, misinformation and opposing ideas surrounding COVID-19. Perez sticks to a scientific mindset.

“I think with anything you wanna check your resources and facts, and that’s part of being a scientist," she says. "It’s just to make sure that you’re getting your information from sources that have gone through the process, gone through revisions and everything."

As a woman in the sciences, she says she hasn't necessarily experienced discrimination, but that it's still a common occurrence.

“I didn’t have any problems until maybe college (when) I did realize how little women are involved in geology particularly," Perez, who is 23, says. "I fortunately have had incredible mentors who never dismissed me because of my gender, even age. They have always been encouraging, so fortunately I have not experienced this, but I know many colleagues of mine, many friends in the STEM field who have experienced a lot of biases towards gender in their field, and it certainly hasn’t gone away."

Rhiannon Wold-Gonzalez Morris, a doctorate in molecular biology who supervises a clinical lab and whose work experience includes DNA damage repair and cancer research, says that "women in science experience all the same challenges as men and then some extra that men won't experience." She points to sexism and "negative perception of being pregnant or having children."

Wold-Gonzalez Morris says that while she sees more and more women in her fields of study, women are still the minority.

"I think that girls are not encouraged to be creative thinkers, innovative thinkers, ask questions, push the limits of learning, investigation and problem solving," she says. "I think there should be more emphasis with girls to go outside and explore, ask questions and learn the answers. I see girls being encouraged to pursue 'beauty' and social status through social media and this Disney princess obsession."

Wold-Gonzalez Morris says parents can plant seeds from an early age to encourage girls to form a scientific interest.

"We should be fostering a girl's confidence in her ability to think, contribute and create," she says."Not limiting her to what she looks like and how much attention she can draw from others."

"I can’t tell you why women drop out," Perez concedes of the gender gap.

"It’s shown that a lot of girls become discouraged and lose interest in pursuing science kind of in that middle school age — there’s what we call a leaky pipe — and so women tend to drop out.

"Further along in their education they lose interest; they lose a path in science through that, and we want to promote women by showing them that we can be involved in STEM, encouraging and maybe providing… showing them that are so many career options that are awesome to be a part of, and closing that gender gap."

While the Perot Museum remains closed to the public, which has resulted in massive layoffs announced this Wednesday, Perez says she "fortunately was retained."

She's at home putting together online content describing her work. She misses seeing kids and teachers through the glass at the lab, observing her work, and inspiring the women scientists of the future. 

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