Translating Earth system science into Spanish

Marina LaGrave, Translator


Marina LaGrave is now the CEO of CLASE—Centro Latinoamericano para las Artes, Ciencia y Educación, which focuses on improving the quality of and expanding access to all levels of education, with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (June 2010).
Photograph of Marina LaGrave
Marina LaGrave (©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Diversity has always surrounded Marina LaGrave. Her immediate roots are in Venezuela, France, and Brazil, while her extended family traces its line to Guatemala, Italy, Lebanon, Spain, and Canada. Growing up in Venezuela, she learned Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and English.

Not surprisingly, a career in translation and interpretation lay in Marina's future. She realized she could put her language skills to work while satisfying her general curiosity about a variety of fields. "I would be able to learn about anything I wanted," she recalls thinking.

What she didn't expect was that she would eventually find herself working in science education, learning more about the atmospheric and Earth system sciences than she ever dreamed. "By the time I'm done with my career, I'll be a walking encyclopedia," she jokes. She also never imagined she'd be reaching out to Spanish-speaking communities in the United States and across Latin America, learning how to construct networks of support for science teachers and students.

Marina works as a translator and outreach coordinator in UCAR's Education and Outreach group, a close team of scientists and educators who strive to build bridges between NCAR's scientific research and K-12 education. "Everything has combined for me in this position—loving languages and science education, working with the Latino community, being culturally fluent—so that it's the perfect job for me," Marina says. "You can be involved in science in so many ways and at so many levels."

Marina came to UCAR in 2003, initially to apply her skills as a Spanish translator to Windows to the Universe, a vast and colorful educational Web site covering Earth and space sciences. Of the roughly 18 million users who visit Windows to the Universe each year, more than a quarter now head for the site's Spanish pages.

"I've learned everything I know about atmospheric sciences through Windows," Marina says. "When I translate a page, I no longer think that I'm just translating, but I think about the number of viewers who are going to look at that one page."

When she began translating Windows to the Universe, Marina realized that her intended audience wouldn't visit the site if they didn’t know it existed. "I saw a need for outreach to bring Windows to Spanish speakers, and that's when I started making connections with the international community," she explains.

Marina began building a network of educators and government ministers throughout Latin America, and made contacts at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Over time, her job has continued to include a strong outreach component. She finds herself doing everything from organizing Boulder workshops for bilingual science teachers to traveling to Mexico to help scientists from around the world share their research with teachers and students during a major field study of airpollution.

Logo for Milagro, NSF

Researchers from around the world brought aircraft, weather balloons, radars, and other specialized equipment to Mexico City in 2006 to study air pollutants in and downwind from the world's second largest city. An important component of their activities was outreach to the local population and Spanish speakers around the globe. Marina collaborated with colleagues within and beyond UCAR and NCAR to create a Web site about the MILAGRO field campaign in English and Spanish.

She returned to Mexico for the spring 2007 joint assembly in Acapulco of the American Geophysical Union and participating societies from acriss Latin America. There she helped present a bilingual workshop to 72 teachers. Shortly after, she headed to Chile for a conference on education that brought together more than 1,000 teachers from across that nation to learn about Web-based educational resources. Her next step was Argentina to present a workshop at a UNESCO conference.

"The science community is understanding that Latin America wants and needs our resources," Marina says. "In some countries they really struggle to get science education to their students."

Marina enjoys both the translation and outreach aspects of her job. "I need both," she says. "I'm very outgoing, but I need my quiet moments."

Although Marina is not trained as a scientist, she's had a love for and fascination with the natural world since childhood. Her father was an admiral for the Venezuelan navy, so the family traveled frequently, including stints abroad in Washington D.C. and France. They passed summers on La Orchila, a Caribbean island that serves as a Venezuelan naval base.

"I spent every summer there for 18 years, and that free interaction with nature became my microscope and telescope to see and learn about our planet and space," Marina recalls. "We would swim with dolphins and watch turtles nest, and I had a crab collection. It's what got me fascinated with nature and science."

Marina's other love was guitar, which she started playing at age five. After earning a music degree in Venezuela, she was offered a scholarship to study in Spain under the famed Andrés Segovia, considered to be the father of the modern classical guitar movement. She turned the scholarship down to marry and start a family in Venezuela.

She decided to become a certified translator of written language and interpreter of spoken language, which fit well with her plan to work primarily from home when she had children.

One of her most memorable jobs was as a personal "whisperer" for Venezuelan president Carlos Andrés Pérez during his second term, from 1989 to 1993. She stayed by his side during meetings and functions conducted in other languages, giving him quick summaries in hushed Spanish.

"I learned a lot and it was a great experience, but I learned that I didn't really like politics all that much," she says.

She decided to jump into science and education next, since the natural world had always interested her and, as a parent, she was attentive to her own children's education. She started working as a translator for scientific organizations around the world, which allowed her to explore a variety of scientific subjects and make contacts worldwide.

When she moved to the United States in 1993, Marina did a variety of jobs in her field before taking a position as a Spanish translator and interpreter for the city of Boulder. The position exposed her to every municipal program, including the school district and community events. She was able to build ties among educators and within the Latino community that helped pave the way for her outreach efforts at UCAR.

She especially enjoys her interaction with colleagues at UCAR. "I have the privilege of working on a team of people with so much knowledge," she says. "I couldn't have found a better environment to learn and grow as a person and professional than UCAR."

She says she looks forward to coming to work every morning—a commute she makes by motor scooter to cut down on the emissions that cause global warming. She's also teaching free Spanish classes to UCAR/NCAR staff one evening a week. "Coming here is like coming to school. I'm always so excited with everything I'm learning, and I know that the things I do inside my little office go far beyond."

Related Links

Ventanas al Universo

Windows to the Universe

by Nicole Gordon
June 2007


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