Growing up near Southern California and Mexico beaches, Daisy Mercado is not a stranger to the water. Some of her fondest memories, in fact, revolve around joining her father, Claudio, at his daily occupation as a commercial fisherman.
“We’d be on a boat at 5 a.m. and he’d teach me to fish, teach me about the fish and the proper place to stand while I was in the boat,” she recalled.
From there, Mercado’s education about the wonders of the water really took off. That’s when she attended San Diego’s Hoover High School in City Heights, a diversely populated, yet low-income area, and connected with the Ocean Discovery Institute (ODI). The nonprofit organization, which provides science education and environmental awareness programs in City Heights to spark the interest of the community’s elementary, middle and high school students, had Mercado’s full attention.
“Being in the Ocean Discovery Institute gave me more opportunities to learn about the ocean, about the earth and the environment,” Mercado said. “I was hooked. I knew then that this is what I wanted to do. It’s my passion.”
So it comes as little surprise that Mercado, an incoming freshman at the University of San Diego this fall, has made an early splash on campus this summer. She was selected to participate in the Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) program that gives a few admitted incoming freshmen the chance to work with USD faculty and current students with a research project.
Mercado worked in the lab of Marine Science and Environmental Studies Assistant Professor Nathalie Reyns, PhD, and assisted USD graduate student Brianna Tracy with her thesis research on ascidians. Furthermore, Reyns gave Mercado the chance to do independent research on colonial ascidians and observe their reattachment and growth patterns.
“Daisy was such a great addition to our lab,” Reyns said. “She came in with a great attitude and it was, overall, just a very nice experience. Getting the chance to interact with her on a day-to-day basis it was interesting to see her perspective coming into college. She’s very excited about college and she was like a sponge, taking everything in.”
Her duties in the lab, according to a poster presentation Mercado (pictured, above) gave on Wednesday night at a ODI event, consisted of collecting ascidians and placing them in treatment tanks for the reattachment experiment; dissecting and counting colonies and zooids; monitoring temperature and salinity in different treatment tanks; and recording daily findings and observations.
By having this research opportunity early, it makes the transition from high school to college easier, she said. “Working with USD professors and students made me feel welcome and prepared me for my new home this fall.”
Mercado’s preparation through ODI played a significant role getting her ready for college. The ODI staff, featuring current and former USD professors and USD alumni, helped her break out of her personality “shell.”
“I was a shy person and I didn’t know much English, but the biggest thing ODI gave me was the motivation to do what I’m passionate about,” she said. “They give you a lot of support and help you find opportunities that give you a good taste of where you want to go.”
Her education included serving as president of her high school’s Eco Club and, under the supervision of USD adjunct professor Theresa Talley, PhD, Mercado worked on the Tijuana Estuary Restoration Research Project. She spent countless hours as a volunteer and as a leader to protect this wetland habitat. Mercado’s work made her a finalist for a local cable TV show that spotlighted San Diegans doing sustainable work in the region.
She participated in ODI’s Bahia program, which helps students do science projects in San Diego and, for five weeks, in Baja California’s Bahia de Los Angeles where the desert, water and wetlands come together as a real-life science laboratory. Mercado attended Bahia twice, recording data for fisheries research on one trip and a second time with Talley on wetlands research.
Her science experiences have given Mercado a focus and direction that, she says, makes her parents happy. “They’re thrilled about my interest in marine science because it means I still have my hands in the water.”
The experiences have translated into the next important step toward her career goal of becoming a scientist. She will be the first member of her family to attend college.
Mercado enters USD as an Ocean Leader Scholar, a scholarship that provides tuition and housing and assistance through Marine Science and Environmental Studies. Funding for the USD Ocean Leader Scholarship is provided by the university and through a broader $435,000 grant from the National Science Foundation awarded to Assistant Professor Drew Talley and ODI. Mercado follows Yajaira Nuñez who was USD’s first Ocean Leader Scholar last fall.
Mercado returns to campus this weekend to participate in the one-week Summer Bridge orientation offered through Student Support Services. She will be assigned to her dorm room, engage with USD faculty, incoming freshmen and new transfer students and participate in several activities including sample classes, discussions and local field trips.
Mercado said she’s eager to continue learning and evolving, ready to make her mark at USD.
“To know how the world works, you need education — period,” Mercado. “I’m looking forward to it.”
— Ryan T. Blystone