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Ocean Minds Presents Freya Womersley

Profession: PhD Student

Organisation: Marine Biological Association (Plymouth) and University of Southampton (INSPRIE DTP)


Freya inspired me from the moment I met her, she is intelligent, ambitious and friendly! She is willing to take the time to share her in-depth knowledge with you so that you too can thrive. I am lucky to have crossed paths with her and I look forward to reading more about her incredible PhD work in the near future.

Photo Credit: Ahmed Shamoon

1. How did we meet?

I met Margaux just as I was ending my role at Velaa Private Island in the Maldives. At the time we were both working on the large-scale nursery based coral restoration project around the island. Unfortunately, I was only able to spend about a week or so working alongside Margaux, but we had a lot of fun and shared some good experiences.


2. What is one memorable ocean moment from our time together?

We had some good times diving the house reef when Margaux joined the team, but for me it was always an amazing moment taking someone new to the coral nurseries and transplanting sites for the first time. We all felt so much pride in the corals we were tending in the nursery and those already establishing themselves on the reef. It was special for all of us to share that experience with Margaux. We felt like proud parents!


3. What encouraged you to purse a career in marine biology/conservation?

Since I was very young all I wanted to do with my life was to discover the natural world and to explore wild places. I had a strong sense of wanderlust and curiosity. I grew up walking distance from the coast and was captivated by the ocean horizon and by thoughts of what goes on under the surface, just out of sight; that concept still energises me. But, I wasn’t set on a career as a marine scientist at first, and my undergraduate degree was in biological sciences with an aim to convert to veterinary medicine. It was during a tropical marine ecology module in my second year that my eyes were opened to the possibility of marine science as an actual career. I also encountered my first shark in the Bahamas during this course, so it all changed for me from there on!


4. How did you land your current job?

I had begun putting feelers out for PhD research towards the end of my contract in Maldives, as I wanted my next role to be predominantly research focussed. I was open-minded about working in a number of areas based on my knowledge and experience, but my ideal topic was shark science because of the intense pressures facing this group. Shark based PhD’s are rare and my expectations to land one myself were low, so when I first saw this PhD advertised, I was pretty thrilled. It was perfect timing for me and involved an amazing set of research questions and opportunities. I put all my efforts into the application and I had gained skills over the last few years that meant that I was a competitive candidate.


5. What is it about your role that makes you feel like you are truly making a difference?

I am lucky enough to be working with a global network of scientists. My research uses a compiled global dataset of satellite tracked shark movements called the Global Shark Movement Project (www.globalsharkmovement.org), which is essentially a treasure trove of shark data just waiting to be explored. With the data collection aspect removed from my research, it enables me to put all my focus into designing global scale analysis techniques aimed at answering important and topical questions related to shark conservation. Myself, the lab and our collaborators aim to produce high impact evidence that can be used by policy/ conservation decision makers, and hopefully my PhD work will make future prospects a little brighter for some of the vulnerable and endangered species I work with.


6. What advice would you give to aspiring ocean warriors?

Today, the field of ocean science/ conservation is so fluid and diverse that the best advice I can offer is to stay motivated and take any opportunities that come your way. Landing a job that suits you is not always a straight path but rather more of a zig-zag adventure, where each role you take should move you forward, but may not always be directly related. Consider the skills and knowledge you want to acquire, and then find the positions that can offer them to you; build up your portfolio. In doing so, you will discover more about your strengths, weaknesses and passions, while cultivating a resilient approach to work. I’ve worked in so many varied roles that have not all been marine based, but they have all made me the biologist/ conservationist that I am today, and having an open mind definitely helped me learn and grow professionally throughout the process. Also, try not to compare your journey to that of others, as we all take our own path; you do you. Don’t give up, the ocean needs you!


7. What has been your most unforgettable experience in the ocean and why?

One thing that is always unforgettable for me is the idea of an ‘almost’ encounter. I’m captivated by what I don’t see but know is close by. Diving at Heron Island with humpbacks singing in the distance is one to remember. I spent every dive checking behind me in case they appeared out of the blue; I didn’t get much work done! A dive in the Maldives also comes to mind. We were ascending after encountering some thresher and tiger sharks and a wall of shadows came into view. It was a huge school of hammerheads that were just out of clear sight and we could only see those closest to us. For me, that feeling of not quite fully experiencing the extent of what we were surrounded by stuck with me. A reminder that I will only ever get to glimpse the wonders of the ocean myself.


8. Who has inspired you to achieve your goals?

It’s difficult for me to highlight everyone who has inspired me to achieve my goals. Fundamentally, I am most inspired by real life connections and by the people I have had the chance to work with over the years. One of my first roles in the Seychelles introduced me to a group of hard working, motivated marine scientists and I remember feeling strong aspirations to join them and contribute to the field. I also remember my first conference in Qatar where I was blown away by being able to meet so many people whose visions were aligned with my own. I love the wide range of personalities, nationalities and diverse backgrounds of people I have been able to meet on my path, and I honestly feel inspired by everyone who chooses to work towards protecting what they love.


9. What do you hope to achieve in the future?

In the near-term future I hope to complete my PhD and produce some high impact science that can be put into conservation practice. I want to focus on ensuring the work I do provides the information and evidence needed to inform management and protect declining populations. In the longer-term, after my PhD, I may take a break from academia and return to work on the ‘front lines’ of conservation again or perhaps policy. I want to take my abilities, experience and motivation to where I am most needed for protecting our oceans.


A Message from Freya

I guess I could add a couple of things that I have learnt from navigating through a PhD during a global pandemic! Firstly, don’t feel like you have to be on the top of your game all the time. There is pressure on marine scientists today to be expert analysts, data managers, communicators, graphic designers, writers, public speakers, coders and more. But sometimes this isn’t possible. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to do it all and be it all, all of the time, or you will find that you burn out. Try to compartmentalise tasks in different areas and focus on achievable goals. Secondly, there are many important computer-based skills that you can cultivate if you can’t be in the field, or perhaps while you are waiting to land your next roll. If you are interested in a career in research, skills in programming languages like R/ Python, in mapping software tools like GIS and in other areas like graphical/ illustrative display of information are so important and can all be achieved with a laptop, Google and a strong coffee!




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