Afrodita Fuentes profile picture

Afrodita Fuentes

Science Communication Fellow
Biology Teacher
West Adams Prep High School

Tell us about your work/research. What kinds of things do you do?

One of my greatest joys as a High School Biology Teacher is observing students’ first reactions to a new experience, especially when they get to use their senses or wonder about something for the first time. It is this moment of surprise and curiosity that opens the opportunity to learn something new or complex like exploring the composition, complexity, change, and importance of different systems. Just imagine 30-40 students standing around a giant oak tree looking at the trunk, branches, and nests on it and wondering how a tiny seed became a giant tree. On the first day of school, one of my favorite activities is to have students observe the diversity of plants and insects in our school garden and list all of the non-living things that support this small ecosystem. And later in the year, watching them harvest and taste the freshest of tomatoes and colorful carrots is priceless. When we are fortunate to hike in our local parks and mountains or even visit the beach, the science we learn in class makes more sense. After this, understanding larger ecosystems like mountains and oceans, and complex processes like photosynthesis and the development of new sources of energy or a vaccine becomes more manageable. The year 2020 was one of challenges, but also one of opportunities brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the best things I appreciated and that I helped my students cultivate in our virtual classrooms was the patience and resilience towards distance learning. We practiced kindness towards ourselves by being conscious of how much we were learning about the entire world, our technology, and even the science that exists in our homes. Even small steps in learning were rewarding. And we celebrated the bigger and exciting experience as well like our live Zoom interaction with Dr. Robert Ballard. My students were in disbelief about a real scientist, a top ocean explorer visiting our virtual classroom. Many of them really appreciated Dr. Ballard’s words and included them in their end of year reflection: “A disability can be a gift sometimes.” “No matter what, dream big!” “Don’t be afraid to be yourself.” Different learning experiences allow me to get to know my students every year, and they also get to know themselves and their capacity to improve their skills and gain more knowledge on how everything on Earth is interconnected. It is very satisfying to see students realize that healthy ecosystems provide us with constant, balanced, and abundant goods and services that support our human populations in the world. Biology is us, the food we eat, the air we breathe, and even the things that make us sick, and healthy again. I try to instill in them that if we understand science a little better, we can enjoy a better, healthier, and richer life.

What sparked your initial interest in your career?

Growing up on my family farm in Guatemala and very special teachers inspired me to become a science teacher. In my small school we had one teacher who taught 40-50 students in 1st to 6th grade. Every Friday was my favorite day because all of us sat on the floor around her for storytelling. I admired her and always wondered what it would be like to have a teacher in the family. I didn’t think it would be possible for me. In 7th grade, my Life Science teacher loved to show us her home garden and I enjoyed our class projects that involved the collection and classification of leaves and flowers. And as I grew older, I began to feel the sadness that came when my family members and friends got sick or died because of lack of medical care, so I began to seek explanations of how the human body worked or didn’t work. Coming to the US, I pursued nursing and wanted to be a nursing professor, but then I discovered that I could make a greater impact in younger generations by exploring the world as a Biology Teacher, opening endless possibilities with countless directions. This new understanding was further strengthened by my college Biology professor who had a deep appreciation for scientific research and my chemistry professor who also had time and such patience to guide students through their classes and careers.
Every year that passes by, the success of my students invigorates my purpose to keep being a science teacher. The following are examples of how some of my former students have discovered their career interests while in my Biology classes. Zao was learning English during 10th grade, started volunteering at a local hospital, and loved to tell us his experiences in the hospital like watching doctors perform brain surgeries. Miguel became interested in environmental engineering while we built our school garden. Carolina and Karina decided to major in epidemiology when they read the book “The Hot Zone” in my AP Biology class. Speakers in my classroom inspire my students to become ocean explorers and fight for environmental justice in their community.

Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?

My first-grade teacher inspired me to become a teacher and my seventh-grade teacher helped me discover my passion for Life Science/Biology. My parents demanded the hardest work from me on the farm and I knew that the extreme level of physical labor on the farm was not for the rest of my life. My parents’ values and their farm taught me hard work, abundance in the purest and freshest of harvests, and the generosity in sharing them with people around us. My Biology and Chemistry professors inspired me to care and nurture my desire to be a teacher and mentor like them. My current students and my new experiences keep inspiring me to keep learning and sharing my knowledge as far and wide as possible, as our world is constantly changing. It is satisfying to be able to guide students to discover their passions and even find their purpose in life.

What element of your work/study do you think is the most fascinating?

One of the most fascinating elements of my work is observing my students feel success. I get to see this almost every day, especially and most importantly during parent conferences and open-house days, my students carry out and explain lab activities with their families. This is a special platform for students to have academic conversations with their parents and siblings. It gets to be very interesting when the younger siblings ask many questions and my students have to answer, they say they get to feel like teachers. Students show the family what and how much they are learning in class, and parents also share what they know about the topics, and get to understand how much support or demand they need to practice with their children. Almost all parents and students are impressed with each other’s knowledge of science. All of these experiences give my students a sense of discovery, confidence, accomplishment, and success.

What other jobs led you to your current career?

I have been an educator since 1999. As a college student, I tutored students after school and then I worked part-time as a Teacher Assistant. These two jobs showed me that I was capable of handling a classroom and gave me the confidence to keep working with youth. In addition to teaching Biology curriculum, I teach other classes such as health, physiology, environmental science, and classes that reflect our daily lives. I also get to be an advisor and mentor to my students as they begin to explore careers and apply to colleges. And this is another reason why I seek opportunities to connect with individuals and local organizations that enrich my students’ lives and futures.

What are your degrees and certifications?

Horticulture Certification & Gardening Authorization, May 2018, UCLA Extension
Sierra Club Certified Hiking Leader, Spring 2012
Master of Arts in Science Education, May 2008, California State University, Northridge
California Credential in Single Subject Biology, June 2003, Mount St. Mary’s College
Bachelor of Science in Biology, Minor in Chemistry, May 2001, Mount St. Mary’s College

What are your hobbies?

Some of my favorite hobbies include gardening, harvesting, gifting my harvests, cooking my harvests with family and friends, and savoring colorful and tasty dishes. Exploring nature by walking on the beach, hiking, camping, and participating in habitat restoration efforts bring me so much satisfaction and peace. Yoga, new places and new experiences also help me focus and rejuvenate. Reading and writing non-fiction also brings balance to my life.

How did you get involved with the Ocean Exploration Trust?

A colleague invited me to a workshop to learn about oceans. When I arrived at the location, I was thrilled to see an amazing team of explorers, scientists, engineers, and teachers in navy blue polo shirts. As other teachers and I participated in the different activities and the tour of the E/V Nautilus, I began to understand that I was in for an amazing opportunity to be part of Ocean Exploration Trust (OET). I was even more inspired to be part of this team, when I heard several members, including the data engineer and Argus Pilot, shared their passions to work aboard the Nautilus. This day, I learned about my opportunity to become a Science Communication Fellow for OET. I am now honored to be part of this team!

What advice would you give someone who wants to have a career like yours?

If you want to be a high school teacher, make sure you own your subject matter because the rest of the time is spent in setting up routines, getting to know your students, and strategizing how to reach them. Spend some time with teenagers and see how you like it. Dedication, commitment, discipline, and preparation are must because when students walk in your class you need to be ready in mind, body, and soul or you will waste time and miss opportunities to engage students in meaningful learning. You will never have a boring day. Teenagers are always testing the limits and making you laugh, sometimes all at the same time! Combining life in the classroom with life outside the classroom, makes school relevant, up to date, visible, purposeful, and interesting, so for me partnerships with individuals and organizations are vital to successful and fun teaching and learning experiences. We all find what works best for ourselves. Selecting the community to work with is as important as knowing the type and size of impact you want to make while balancing personal life. For me nature is my inspiration and primary teacher, and grounds me especially during challenging times.


Afrodita participated in the following Ocean Exploration Trust expeditions: