For International Women’s Day, we sat down with women in research around the world to hear their stories. Asha de Vos is the founder of Oceanswell, Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education organization.
1. Tell us a bit about your background – what got you interested in your area of research?
I am a marine biologist and educator because I am obsessively passionate about sharing my ocean adventures and science with everyone. I knew what I wanted to do at six years old. I wanted to go where no one else had ever gone, to see what no one else has ever seen. I was brought up with a lot of curiosity and a lot of freedom. Marine biology combined all the things I loved: science, exploration, the water.
I had to leave Sri Lanka to study. Even though we are a beautiful, tropical, island, it is rare to have marine biologists here and impossible to get a degree in this field. So I went to Scotland. Sri Lankans would always ask me what I was going to do with my degree. They were convinced I would never come home. But my intention was always to go away and learn, to amass the knowledge I needed so I could come back and serve Sri Lanka.
2. What have been the biggest challenges that you’ve had to overcome in your field?
One of the biggest hurdles to climb had to do with my area of study. I work with blue whales that as it turns out are non-migratory. I wanted to figure out what this group of whales was doing out by Sri Lanka throughout their lives. I wanted to help people realize we need to protect them, and all the threats they face are human-related. Initially, no one in the government would listen because I was too young and too female, they I got push-back because the biggest threat is ship-strike and they did not want to move the shipping routes in case it affected our economy. I have worked hard to make people realize that this is not a zero sum game. There are ways to ensure that the economy of the country is not affected while also protecting this species that we use for our tourism industry.
Along with local challenges, we also have global challenges. Going to any major marine conservation forum, the vast majority are from North America, Australia, Europe. But 70% of coastlines are in developing countries! I wasn’t born into this network, or near a well-established lab, and I don’t have some of the same academic pedigree. So it took a long time for people to acknowledge that I had something to contribute. It’s not that I wasn’t capable. It’s that I was stereotyped. I reached out to people about how to go about studying this unique population of blue whales I had discovered, and they would tell me to apply for a grant and they would come out and do the research. But I was adamant that it was my project, and my research and that I would show people that we had the capacity. It took me five years to save enough money to go out on the water on my own, because I wanted this to be a Sri Lankan born and bred project.
When we look at science and what’s published, it is all about being innovative and groundbreaking, its about what amazing technology is used, and what boundaries were pushed. But people like me, people from the developing world, we face different hardships. Many of our projects start out of passion with no funds and no support. I will never have the resources to do crazy innovative research because I just don’t have the funds and infrastructure available. But that does not mean that my work doesn’t push boundaries. It tells about a part of the world that we knew nothing about. The questions is, how do we value science and then how do we become more open about making space for the voices that we are currently diluting out?
If you want to save the oceans, every coastline needs a hero. I don’t mean someone from the outside coming in; I mean a local hero. For sustainability to happen, we need to empower and engage local scientists who can work with local communities. It doesn’t matter where you come from. You can contribute to the global conversation.
3. Was there anyone who inspired you, or acted as a role model for you, when you were starting out on your career?
For me, my role models were my parents. My mom always told me that if she could only educate one child, it would be me. Because I’m a girl, education is the best way for me to stand on my own two feet. She was a stay at home mom, even though she was a qualified nurse and midwife. I’ve learned a lot about the meaning of sacrifice from her. She did it for the sake of her children. That’s been the power behind what I’ve been able to achieve. In South Asia, marriage becomes the focus for girls at a certain age. It’s what society measures you by. Luckily my father supported my education so I was able to follow my dreams. Today I still deal with people who overlook my accomplishments because of my marital status. We need to change this, and my parents are important cogs in this change. Neither of my parents cared about money or societal status, they really just cared about their children’s happiness.
David Attenborough is also a role model. In many ways, he’s a pioneer for open access. He brought nature to everyone, right in their living room. He allowed people to see things and learn. He communicates with humility and believes in the power of people. It’s an incredible service, and I want to follow in his footsteps with how I engage with people about the work that inspires me.
When I started out, there was no one I could relate to in my field who could become my role model. The faces of marine conservation just do not represent the vast majority of the world. I learned about the academic community through a lot of trial and error. It would have been fabulous to have someone who could show me how to review a paper, how to apply for a grant. As such, I now see the importance in being a role model and mentor to others. I commit two hours a week to mentoring students because sometimes people just need to know what’s possible and they need to know from the source. Take a professor for example, you have only heard of them through the perfectly written scientific paper – but you don’t know their story, their mistakes, their rejections. You can’t relate to that. I would like to guide people, but I always want people to see a piece of who I am. I want them to think “wow, she’s just like us” – because I am!
4. Is there anything you think the research community could be doing to encourage greater diversity in academia?
In scientific papers we need to get away from the idea that the world speaks fluent English. We have to understand that there are a lot of people who speak the language of science but don’t speak the language of English. But that doesn’t mean the science isn’t deserving of publishing. If I try to publish a paper about my region, I’m sometimes told to find a regional journal. But Western regional research doesn’t have to be in a regional journal. What makes that work not regional, but my work regional?
How we value knowledge needs to be reassessed. We should be trying to understand how we can bring in those different voices and allow them to engage and be part of the overall solution to a problem. That includes talking to people outside the scientific community – to create change we need to engage full communities. When it comes to career growth, we should be more committed to the change we make in the world, not just celebrating ourselves. Why don’t we celebrate how many people we inspire and train to create sustainability – that’s our legacy – that’s what tenure should be based off of.
On the whole I think we should assess people on merit and not on their gender. So the question is, how do we become gender blind? Well how do we become blind about anything really? The perspective of a woman is different from that of a man. A person from a remote part of the world will see their coastline different to someone in the US. In the end, we need everyone to come onboard to solve our greatest planetary challenges.
5. What would be the one piece of advice that you would give to a young woman hoping to pursue an academic career?
Marine biology is one of those careers that every child dreams of at one point, but so many don’t follow through. If everyone who dreamed of it had pursued it, we might have saved the oceans by now!
It does not matter what you do in life, just make sure it is your own dream. Do what you love, and you’ll do it well (this is what my parents told me). Take the time to explore what your dream is. It doesn’t need to be decided at eighteen or twenty-one because those numbers are arbitrary. Sometimes the adventure is the most interesting part. To get to where I am, I’ve polished brass on boats, I’ve worked in potato fields.
My more practical advice is that challenges are things you can climb over or walk around. There’s no such thing as a never-ending wall. Life is all about the story, and it’s a better story if there are ups and downs.
To read more stories, or learn more about our International Women’s Day program, visit here.