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A fish story: PSU student names new species, wins National Geographic contest, expands ministry

A new species of fish was discovered off the coast of Chile last February, and Tania Curiel, an 18-year-old international studies major at Portland State University, won a National Geographic contest to name it. The prize is a 10-day trip for two to the Galapagos Islands over spring break in March.

She's going to do more than just enjoy a vacation, however. Curiel and her traveling companion – her father Hector, the pastor of Peniel Ministries in Gresham – will take an extra six days to visit FEDICE, a Christian service organization in Ecuador that helps poor rural communities. They’re hoping to learn some things that they can apply to their own missions in Sonora, Mexico, where they travel every December.

"One thing that's really important to me is to support things that are already working. FEDICE builds chicken coops and teaches classes in agriculture. I think we could do the same kind of thing in Sonora," she said.

The trip plans all started with a fish.

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala discovered the bright green, orange and yellow fish in the waters surrounding the Desventuradas Islands near the Tropic of Capricorn. He consulted with experts who believed the fish was a new species.

Since new species need names, Sala launched a "name this fish" contest on Facebook. Curiel clicked on it, and within 20 minutes came up with the name that was chosen above more than 9,500 contestants: "El Chilito."

In an article in National Geographic she explained that the name combined Chile, where it was discovered, and "ito," meaning small or cute. Sala said in the article that the name made him think of the color of the fish, which reminds him of a hot chili pepper.

Curiel got an email notification of her win in October "while I was typing in my cubicle, sipping a cup of cold coffee and listening to an overplayed Taylor Swift song," she said.

The side trip she and her father take to visit FEDICE in Quito, Ecuador, will build on the missionary expertise they've gained on their annual trip to Sonora, on the border with Arizona. They've been going there every December for the last six years to bring gifts and distribute food to some of its poorest citizens. Last year members of the congregation built wood stoves out of propane tanks, and had them shipped and installed in ramshackle homes in Sonora where the high-desert nights often dip below freezing.

Curiel has started a blog about the fish, the contest, and her upcoming trip. Read it at

(Above left) Tania Curiel and her father, Hector, will travel to Ecuador in March.

(Above right) El Chilito, photographed last winter. Photo by Avi Klapfer/DeepSee.