Women of Discovery: Q&A With Asha de Vos

WINGS WorldQuest will induct five new groundbreaking women as Fellows during the 2018 Women of Discovery Awards. Leading up to our April 25 Awards Luncheon, we are highlighting the work of each of our new Fellows. Dr. Asha de Vos is a Sri Lankan marine biologist, ocean educator and pioneer of blue whale research within the Northern Indian Ocean. De Vos founded Oceanswell, Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education non-profit. She will receive our Sea Award. Read the rest of the series here.


WINGS WORLDQUEST: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and in your field specifically?

Asha de Vos: As a six year old, my parents would bring me second-hand National Geographic magazines that I would pore over. I used to look through the pages and imagine that that would be me one day –  going places where no one would ever go and seeing things no one would ever see. I was enthralled with the idea of adventure and dreamed of being an adventure scientist. As I grew older, I started to realize my element was water, and so becoming a marine biologist seemed like the natural path for me. I didn’t grow up in an ocean-going family, but I did grow up in a family that allowed me a lot of freedom (particularly intellectually) and encouraged curiosity. I was introduced to interesting places and people including Sir Arthur C. Clarke who used to come to my local swimming club. He would tell me stories of his diving adventures around Sri Lanka but always leave me hanging. It made me so intrigued. By 18 I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist, so I set off to the University of St. Andrews to do my undergraduate. I had to leave home to pursue this field because becoming a marine biologist in Sri Lanka is pretty much unheard of. 

After my degree I spent a bit of time on projects in New Zealand and then got an opportunity to work on a whale research vessel that was circumnavigating the globe and stopping off in the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Long story short, I had a eureka moment that involved a pile of blue whale poop, and that was the start of The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project, which is now the flagship project of my non-profit organization, Oceanswell.

WWQ: What is something you would like people to understand about your field and your work?

ADV: Many people assume the work I do is very glamorous – hours on a boat with whales breaching everywhere. In my mind, I have the best job in the world and that’s partly because it’s not something everyone can do. Also, blue whales don’t breach. They just can’t. We also have days when all we do is stare at the ocean hoping to see a sign of life. We can have days when we head out, have a bunch of whales, get super excited and then a huge squall comes through and we have to turn in because – safety first! Respecting the ocean is a really important part of what I do because it’s the one thing we have no control over. I think there is real beauty in that. 

Another thing that people assume is that my job is only about sitting on boats and staring at whales. So I have a lot of students who are only interested in working with me if they can get out on the boat but have no interest in working through the data at a desk. The thing they don’t understand is that the real adventure happens when you sit down and try to make sense of all the data. I think students, particularly those aspiring to go into the field, need to understand that the hard work and the unglamorous part is the most important, and the more of those opportunities they seek, the better chance they will actually be able to enter the field and get opportunities in the field. 

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

ADV: The existing systems do not support women and the roles they play outside the workplace, and in the past, the faces of science have largely been men and therefore unrelatable (and so much more). I think everyone should be defined by what they can offer the field or the planet rather than gender. It’s time we all became gender neutral because the gender wars are so petty, and in fact, there are much bigger problems to resolve in the world we live in. The more heads we can get together, the faster we can actually achieve the goals we have set for humanity. That said, beyond just the issue of barriers to women, I am very interested in the barriers to people who come from the developing world and how to create diversity, particularly in marine conservation. 

WWQ: What gets you up in the morning? 

ADV: I am extremely grateful to be alive and to live the blessed life that I do, and that helps me wake up excited about the opportunity of the day ahead of me. Life is an incredible adventure and every day is an important part of the whole.

WWQ: What’s your next challenge? 

ADV: I have just established Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education non-profit, Oceanswell. Admittedly, my dream was never to build an organization. I have bigger goals in marine conservation and bringing diversity to the field.  So I see Oceanswell as a means to an end. A way to create sustainability and to ensure that when I die, the work doesn’t end. A way to achieve the dream. But this whole thing is a steep learning curve and, for me, it’s a big challenge. Raising funds is obviously the toughest part especially because it’s not just about keeping the work going and myself afloat, but I have to create sustainability for the people I hire too. So I would say my next challenge is creating an organization that can be an example to the world and creating long-term sustainability for it. 

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