One woman whale show!

(Blog written by Jenny Hampson)

To mark the end of orientation week on the Marine Mammal Science MSc, students met with the inspirational and charismatic cetacean scientist, Dr Asha de Vos. As a St Andrew’s alumni herself, Asha proved to the excited and awe-stricken students that the sky is no longer the limit!

She spoke animatedly to a captive audience about the struggles that she overcame in reaching her goal of becoming a marine biologist. Namely, staying in a tent for 6 months to work on a conservation project in New Zealand, working in potato fields to save money to fund her volunteering, and cleaning toilets on a research vessel to get a foot in the door!  Her passion and drive to let nothing stop her in her mission to contribute to the protection and conservation of Sri Lanka’s marine mammals was clear, and a perfect tone with which we could start the course.

Asha founded and directs the NGO Oceanswell which aims to educate the next generation of students from under-represented nations in marine conservation research. Her discussion of this project and its ability to have long term impacts was particularly inspiring. It encouraged us to think about the long-term implications of research, and about the areas of research we want to contribute to. Her focus on the quality of the science using cheaper and more basic techniques (for example, using a tea strainer to collect samples of blue whale poo) really underpinned her desire to shake up the diversity and opportunities in marine mammal science. She emphasised that the quality of the science doesn’t come from the big grant. This was particularly encouraging to hear as we begin our careers as researchers.

Finally, after answering questions from around the table, she encouraged us to help make a change in the way conservation is undertaken globally, less centred on industrialised countries and the most high-tech methods. There needs to be more diversity in the scientific community and a wider spread of research areas that implement conservation and communicate its importance to more widespread communities on a local scale.  After all, Asha herself said “You want to be respected in your home. Why can we not respect animals in theirs?”.

Wide-eyed and invigorated, we left discussing how we could attempt to achieve some of these successes and which paths we may follow upon completing the Marine Mammal Science MSc.

“It was so refreshing to hear from a fellow female scientist who is confident in her abilities. Listening to Asha talk about overcoming her own trials and tribulations was definitely motivating; I only wish I could have recorded our session for motivation later in the semester!” – Lauren S

 “Listening to Asha speak about her work and her experiences was such an inspirational moment. She is not afraid to challenge conventions and represents such a unique voice in the field of conservation.” – Isha

Asha showed us all how important it is to be persistent and never give up on reaching our goals. Meeting such an inspiring scientist as we started our Masters programme was the perfect beginning to a great year!”  – Maeva