With a PhD in Marine Mammal research from the University of Western Australia and a Masters in Biology from the University of Oxford, England, Dr Asha de Vos has taken her passion and expertise in ocean science – quite literally – across the planet. Through her work in the field and science story-telling, she is fueled by the same love for the ocean which she inspires in those who cross her path. Here, she tells us how becoming the leading expert in your field can come from unexpected beginnings, including a heap of whale poo.
What do you do?
I am a marine biologist and Ocean educator, Founder and Executive Director for Oceanswell, Sri Lanka, and adjunct research fellow at The Oceans Institute, University of Western Australia, Australia. I am also an opportunity creator, advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion in marine conservation specifically the upending of colonial or parachute science for the betterment of our planet.
What did it take to get here?
I come from a small developing country in the middle of the Indian Ocean. When I started out, I dealt with Sri Lankans telling me that I had picked a ridiculous career path (despite Sri Lanka being a beautiful tropical island becoming a marine biologist was unheard of when I started out). Once I got into my career I dealt with a patriarchal society that was too busy worrying about my gender to recognize that I was the only person in my country with the knowledge and experience in my field to do something useful and put Sri Lanka on the global map in marine conservation. And throughout all of this I dealt with western scientists who believed they could do a better job in my country than I could, trying to parachute in to take over the work I had started based on a discovery that I made involving blue whales and a pile of whale poo.
So, what did it take? Parents who said, “do what you love and you will do it well”. Essentially parents who trusted that I knew what I needed for my own life despite them never really knowing what a marine biologist did. Passion, hard work, self-belief and wild doggedness.
Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?
I have the best job and life in the world. Everything I do I do out of a place of pure love and passion. I wake up excited for what comes next. I never compromise on my values and do everything I do true to myself. Not only do I get to live out an adventure, I do science and get to share that with the world. I get to inspire more people to fall in love with and care for the oceans on a daily basis – and all this, by living my own life.
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
That I spend time basking around on boats in a bikini, cocktail in hand while whales breach continuously.
Proudest moment on the job?
Realizing that more people than ever before are choosing a career in marine science and conservation in Sri Lanka as a result of my work and efforts.
What do you never leave the house without?
Moleskine notebook and Uniball eye black ink pen. You never know when an idea might hit you!
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
What are you waiting for?
Remember that challenges and setbacks are what make the journey sweeter so embrace them as they come and know that no challenge is so big that you can’t climb over it or walk around it.