Jan 16 2014. view 63556
Having your work revolve around a great ocean giant such as the blue whale and other ocean creatures would seem quite surreal for most of us; Asha de Vos with whom we were able to have a brief conversation, does in fact live that dream.
When we spoke to Asha, who is a marine biologist by profession, the first question we asked her was, ‘How did the passion for marine biology and especially the blue whale come about?’ She says that she always fancied being an adventur scientist, and combining her love for water and animals paved the path to becoming who she is today.
From the age of six Asha has been fascinated with the ocean and the creatures within. For her, seeing the blue whales feeding in our waters was mind-blowing given that she was not expecting to see that in tropical waters.
In fact no one was. So after one set of questions led to another, we found out that the blue whale is definitely the main species she works with as a marine biologist.
Asha presumes that her desire to become a marine biologist from a very young age stemmed from spending hours poring over National Geographic magazines and listening to people like Arthur C. Clarke talk about the great unknown that was the ocean.
It also helped that she grew up in a family that encouraged them to live outside the box, dream, explore and find their own path to happiness.
Her primary education was at Ladies’ College where she says that they were always encouraged to study but also to partake in extra-curricular activities. Asha was a swimmer and a water polo player and her love for water started at a young age.
Subsequent to completing her primary education she moved to Scotland for her undergraduate studies at the University of St. Andrews, which is one of the top schools in the world for studying marine mammals.
Her desire to continue in the field of marine biology was solidified when she interacted with the passionate scientists at the university marine lab.
There was nothing slowing down Asha with her studies since after completing her undergraduate degree she went on to do her Masters at Oxford, and later obtaining a PhD in Marine Mammal research; she adds that none of this would have been possible without the support of her incredible family.
Asha says that her parents always told her to do what she loves and they had no such expectations and never put any pressure for her to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer but they hoped she would choose something worthwhile.
So becoming something as unorthodox as a marine biologist was something they accepted with open arms.
With so many achievements at hand Asha is also a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Senior Fellow, which is a distinguished achievement since individuals are selected from a group of world’s leading thinkers who are making a positive change in the world.
So we asked Asha her thoughts on being a TED Senior Fellow and she says that it is an incredible honour to have been picked from a pool of absolutely amazing TED Fellows.
Since the TED Fellowship is not subject specific but is open to people from different career paths, Asha says she is exposed to some of the most brilliant minds discussing a wide variety of topics on a daily basis.
She further adds that these people who are TED Fellows are the crème de la crème, who are breaking boundaries and changing the world for the better.
She says that it is a humble feeling to be a part of this family and it has made her look at her work in new and different ways and enabled her to contribute to very different kinds of work.
During Asha’s contribution to TED she was gifted with a puppet which resembled her; she says she felt like she had just won an Oscar!
The blue whales found in the Sri Lankan waters have been described by Asha as ‘The Unorthodox Whales’, since they break the stereotypes we have about blue whales.
The previous research on the blue whale had suggested that all blue whales the world over fed at the poles and then undertook long-range migrations to higher latitudes to breed and calve.
However Asha says that the whales in our waters actually tend to stay around the northern Indian Ocean with some in our waters all year round – so basically they remain in warm waters throughout the year; thereby making us realise that we know so very little about this species, the largest that has ever lived on the planet, and that we have a long way to go in understanding this great ocean giant.
Apart from her research Asha is also an activist creating awareness about marine life and she says that when her first mini feature by Channel 7 Australia went viral on YouTube, she had emails coming from people around the world, but mostly from Sri Lanka writing to tell her that they did not even know that we had whales in our waters.
She further adds that it is definitely very rewarding to hear how far and wide the word has gone about these whales and most importantly she is excited that the world is starting to realise that us Sri Lankans are completely capable of conducting top quality marine research as well.
Asha was recently awarded with the 2013 President’s Award for Scientific Publications; she says that it is always nice to be recognised for the hard work she has done.
She believes that there is no greater honour than being recognised in your own country.
Asha has carried out research focusing on proving how important Sri Lanka is as a feeding area and why it is so productive and attractive to the whales.
Since we now know that, she is currently looking at resolving the biggest risk faced by this population of blue whales in our waters – which is the death of whales by ship strike.
As a Sri Lankan, Asha works to put Sri Lanka on the map so she says it is natural to collaborate with other local scientists and organizations.
In this regard she has collaborations with the scientists at the National Aquatic Research Agency (NARA) and she gets all her research permits through the Department of Wildlife Conservation.
She also works with Arjan Rajasuriya, Nishan Perera and Daniel Fernando who are all marine biologists and close friends of Asha’s who are studying other species or issues in the ocean.
Globetrotting would be usual in this profession, and Asha says while having travelled to many countries during her research she is currently splitting her time between Sri Lanka and California because she wants to learn from their decades of blue whale research experience and bring it back to our shores.
She says that she has had the opportunity to work with some of the most fantastic marine scientists and build close collaborations which will only grow and benefit our country in the long run.
She also adds that United States is way ahead of everyone else in terms of research in this area.
With so many achievements at hand we asked her what advice she would give to a budding marine biologist, and she says ‘firstly do what you love.
It doesn’t matter what you do but just make sure you love it; secondly never give up, no matter how many people question why you are doing it, if you are passionate about it and are not having any negative impacts in the process, just keep pushing – even if things begin to look and feel a little bleak.
Every cloud definitely has a silver lining; thirdly build up a fan base of those who respect, love and care for you and keep them very close.
They will be the ones who will help you face your biggest challenges, and trust me when I say there will be many; fourthly step outside your comfort zone, the world is a far more beautiful place with lots more opportunities for exploration and fulfillment; fifthly always have an open mind and be willing to learn.
There is something to be learnt from everyone and everything and learning is what helps us grow; and finally do not lose track of your roots and where you come from. Always stay humble.’
Being a Marine Biologist in Sri Lanka is quite uncommon and being a marine biologist who is a woman is very rare indeed. Asha adds that women have to work a lot harder to gain respect and acknowledgement in any field and she says that she has certainly seen improvements here since she started out and it is nice to see people getting used to her.
And she adds that ‘If you do good work, no one will ever question your place’.
Asha says that she is very passionate about ocean conservation and nature in general.