You could spend your entire life trying to get a rare glimpse of a marine mammal, or spend an actual day at work listening to some very cool whales, and conducting cetacean surveys off boats or ships from dawn to dusk. The choice is yours.

Isha Shyam, our next pathbreaker, Marine Biologist & Research Intern at Oceanswell, Sri Lanka, works on The Sri Lankan Sperm Whale Project, studying the vocal communication of Sperm Whales to understand how bio-acoustics can help in effective monitoring of the whale population.

Isha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about visiting Antarctica as part of her MSc course and witnessing an icesheet around a glacier, that used to extend outwards until a few years ago, that had thinned considerably, and shrunken inwards due to global warming, which was a moment engraved in her brain.

For students, conservation has one of the highest burnout rates, so passion definitely goes a long way. If you care about nature, you belong here. Just believe in yourself. The future isn’t hopeless as long as we care about our planet.

Isha, Your background?

I first saw dolphins in the wild when I was 5 years old, from aboard a tanker ship while sailing with my father. From that moment on I was obsessed! I grew up climbing trees, prancing about forest trails trying to spot wildlife, but it was the sea that held me truly captive, my siren’s song.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I’ve always had a curious mind and a fascination with science. I went on to pursue a BSc in Zoology and Biochemistry from St. Xavier’s College – Autonomous, Mumbai, followed by an MSc in Marine Mammal Science from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

The University of St. Andrews is renowned worldwide for marine research, particularly for marine mammals. The Scottish Oceans Institute is an amazing place to work and the MSc is taught by pioneers in the field. The MSc is a one year taught course with a dissertation requirement towards the end of the course.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

I’ve always had a curious mind and a fascination with science. Wildlife conservation has been an issue close to my heart. Wanting to make a difference and help protect the environment and the oceans is what motivated me to pursue this career. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Throughout my undergraduate studies, I made sure to gain as much research experience as I could along with developing my analytical skills (which is key for a career in research).

I did my undergrad internship at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE)’s with the National Initiative on Undergraduate Sciences (NIUS) programme. My research project involved studying the ecology of hermit crabs, and the morphological features that influenced their shell selection. 

I obtained the British Council’s 70th Anniversary Scholarship for Women in STEM for my MSc. Following my MSc, I worked as a tutor at my alma mater (St. Xavier’s College). 

How did you get your first break?

During the start of covid-19 lockdowns in India, I reached out to Dr. Asha de Vos, at Oceanswell, Sri Lanka, and asked her if she had a research position at Oceanswell. I explained my skill set, what I had to offer, and what my long-term goals were, which landed me my current internship at Oceanswell.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

I first announced that I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was in the 8th grade, a time when only a few people knew what the job entailed, let alone consider it a viable career choice. I received constant resistance and doubtful glances and very little in terms of support from the adults around me. I had to figure out a career plan all by myself, which was a little isolating and very intimidating. Things got exponentially better when I went to college, but the doubts lingered. 

More than that, being a woman in wild spaces –  be it research, conservation, or outreach – is no joke. But change is definitely here!

Where do you work now? Tell us about your work in conservation

I am currently working as a research Intern for Oceanswell, Sri Lanka. 

Oceanswell is Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation, research and education organization. Oceanswell conducts scientific research, runs conservation programs and campaigns, and educational and outreach programs to raise awareness and engage people with the ocean. Oceanswell also runs programs to empower young people starting out in the marine conservation field with capacity building.

I am working on The Sri Lankan Sperm Whale Project. Through the project, I am studying the vocal communication of Sperm whales and studying how acoustics can help in effective monitoring of the population.

My work involves extensive analysis of acoustic recordings which bring along heaps of troubleshooting challenges. The job requires a keen analytical mind and quantitative skills. Use of software such as MATLAB and R is essential. 

What is a typical day like?

A typical day in the office involves listening to some very cool whales, performing bioacoustic analysis, working on scientific communication and outreach projects as well. All in all, a stimulating and satisfying day. The job involves answering some fascinating research questions. But not only that, I get to use science and apply it to conservation efforts and reach out to a wide range of audiences to get them invested in our oceans as well, and hence make an actual difference!

Since I started working in the organisation after the covid -19 pandemic began in April 2020, I have not had the opportunity to conduct fieldwork with the Oceanswell team. However, my previous fieldwork experiences typically involved cetacean surveys off boats or ships from dawn to dusk. Keeping lookouts for signs of cetaceans (are an entirely aquatic order of mammals comprising the whales, the dolphins, and the porpoises) – a fin popping out of the waves or a glimmer of blow (water exhaled by whales and dolphins when they reach the surface to breathe). Hydrophones (underwater mikes) are deployed during surveys to collect sound. Some of my best survey experiences have been in Antarctica and off the west coast of Scotland! 

How does your work benefit society? 

My work is heavily involved in conservation and outreach, which means that I get to communicate science to people outside academia and increase awareness of conservation issues on a local scale. Successful conservation efforts need people to care and get involved as well – which my job does.

Since whales and dolphins depend heavily on sound to not just communicate, but also navigate their surroundings and hunt for food (by a process called echolocation), sound is a powerful tool to study them. Bioacoustics can help understand the behaviour, social structures, habitat use, foraging (feeding) habits and even population levels of whales and dolphins.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I got the opportunity to visit Antarctica, as part of my MSc course. My professor, who has visited Antarctica each year for over 10 years, took us to a glacier and showed us where the ice sheet used to extend outwards until a few years before. The ice sheet had thinned considerably, and shrunken inwards. The direct glimpse of climate change in real-time was a moment engraved in my brain. Just experiencing the landscapes and wildlife of Antarctica was a surreal experience.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Conservation has one of the highest burnout rates, so passion definitely goes a long way. If you care about nature, you belong here. Just believe in yourself. The future isn’t hopeless as long as we care about our planet.

Future Plans?

Keep working towards conservation goals and make tangible changes in policy to protect our oceans.