Marine biologist, ocean educator and pioneer of blue whale research within the Northern Indian Ocean, Asha de Vos has been a point of pride for Sri Lanka on numerous occasions. Her latest feat is one for our small island-nation as much as it is for herself. Asha became the first Sri Lankan woman to have her portrait hung at Oxford’s Lincoln College 15th Century Hall, and this is her story.
Completing her undergraduate studies in marine and environmental studies at Scotland, Asha de Vos moved to New Zealand where she spent time volunteering for research projects. Living in a tent with the help of a headlight, she spent her nights working on her application for an MSc at the University of Oxford. Many arduous days and nights of drafting, printing and saving her work on a floppy disc later, she was finally able to send off her application. A couple of months after, she was called in for an interview, at the end of which she overcame with disappointment and was left in tears, even though she had presented her work to a panel consisting of mostly men asking questions. However, things turned around for Asha when her passion and deep desire to learn of topics she was then unsure of was recognised. It landed her a spot in the university, and thus began her journey as a graduate in integrative bio-sciences.
Celebrating 40 years of admitting women into Lincoln College Oxford, the university will put up portraits of 20 female alumnae in its 15th Century Hall. Resilient, driven and spirited Asha de Vos is one of the chosen 20 out of the many outstanding women who have been a part of the institution for over 4 decades. That’s not all, Asha de Vos is the first Sri Lankan woman to have her portrait anywhere in the University, as mentioned on her Facebook post.
What’s noteworthy is that although Asha de Vos only spent a year at Oxford, it is her extensive commitment and work across-board that paved the way for this prestigious recognition. She has degrees from the University of St. Andrews, University of Oxford and the University of Western Australia but escaped academia to establish her own Sri Lankan grown non-profit, Oceanswell. Oceanswell, Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education organisation is home to the well-known ‘Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project’ the first long-term study on blue whales in the region. Asha’s work has led to many key research publications, that are used to inform policy at the local and global level. Her work has also been showcased internationally by Channel 7 Australia, the BBC, the New York Times, CNN, WIRED UK, the New Scientist, TED, Grist, GOOD, Nature and National Geographic. Asha is the first and only Sri Lankan to have a PhD in Marine Mammal research, the first Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation from Sri Lanka and also the first National Geographic Explorer from her small island-nation. Asha is also a TED Senior fellow, an Ocean Conservation Fellow at the New England Aquarium, a Duke Global Fellow in Marine Conservation, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. In 2018 Asha was recognised with a prestigious WingsWorldQuest Woman of Discovery at Sea award, was a global winner for the UK Alumni Awards in the Professional Achievement category that recognises alumni whose work has created change in their chosen profession, a Woman in Management Inspirational Woman of the Year Award, an Ada Derana Sri Lankan of the Year Emerging Global Scientist Award, named one of Asia’s sustainability superwomen, listed on the BBC 100 Women 2018 list of most inspiring and influential women from around the world and named Lanka Monthly Digest’s Sri Lankan of the Year. In 2019 Asha was named one of 12 Women Changemakers by the Parliament of Sri Lanka. Asha’s work aims to change the current marine conservation model, protect this unique population of blue whales and inspire the next generation of diverse ocean heroes, making her one of the most inspirational women of our time.