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biologie, Femme qui en jette, Planète

(french version)

Recently, a debate « Women and science », took place on the web science community of Grenoble, Echosciences. Tackling a rich and essential topic, it made me realised the need to light up the unseen! Often hidden in the shadows of more imposing males, less talkative, the women in science are nevertheless far away from being unnoticeable. Thus, I have added a new tag on my blog « Femme qui en jette » (amazing women scientists).  

For the first portrait, I have the huge honour to introduce a young researcher that goes all around the world, with one foot in Twitter, and the other one in the water. 

Asha de Vos grew up in Sri Lanka, studied in England, get her PhD in Australia and is now working in California. But no matter where she is, she is bringing along her topic of research with her : the pygmy blue whales. These marine mammals, that can be found swimming in the Indian Ocean, have not held interest of any scientist before her. Until a few years ago, when Asha starts to passionately study them. Leading two fights, against her ignorance and against the ignorance of the others, she multiplies the media appearances where she explains why these blue beauties are so important. Her persistence and her commitment eventually convince the Sri Lankan government to redesign the shipping lanes that too often overlap with the blue whale habitat. Hopefully putting an end to the deadly collisions. In brief, Asha de Vos is an amazing woman scientist.


It all started with a scientific sea cruise, off Sri Lankan shores, when by chance Asha noticed some pygmy blue whales feeding. According to her marine biology classes, blue whales swim to the cold waters of the Antarctic Ocean, where they can feed in the waters full of nutrients and krill. But, oddly enough, the pygmy whales seemed to content themselves with the tropical seas! 

Startled, Asha de Vos started an investigation to realise that few is known about these giants. We do not even know how many they are!
These particular marine mammals behave differently than most of the blue whales. They speak another dialect and they are smaller (about 5 meters shorter). More important, they do not migrate. The life of these creatures strongly depends on a small piece of the ocean. That increased the interest of the researcher who used all means to better understand them: watching, watching, watching… and doing mathematics!

Credits : Erik Olsen

Asha spends hours organising scientific cruises to observe the whales. But, as everyone knows, whales live in the water. Below the surface! That makes them specifically hard to watch. 
I have participated to some whale watching once. During two hours of sea kayak in a bay, I could have seen only one whale rear its head next to me. When it comes to the surface, it is for breathing. It expires air from the lungs and takes in a big puff through its opened blowhole – the whale’s nose.  Then it dives. Resurfaces a few seconds later. Dives again. And then maybe, goes up the surface to breathe one more time. Or dives deep into water for about ten or fifteen minutes, not without greeting the audience with its caudal fin. Asha and her colleagues have measured how long the dives last. The short ones just below the surface and the deeper and lengthier ones. What for?  To better estimate the total number of whales. Because the longer the dives are, the less we can see whales coming up to the surface.
But the measurements of the dive’s durations are biased. The mean time of the total observed dives is smaller than reality because the deeper dives are not often possible to measure. The whale I have seen breathing three times went down to the deeper ocean. Forever. If you do not know the direction taken by the mammal during its ten minutes of deep swim,  it is only by chance you can see them reappearing. Thus, Asha de Vos and her colleagues have written equations describing the statistical behaviour of a whale. Parameters are fixed using real data. And the so-build model retrieves a longer mean duration of diving because it takes into account more realistically the frequency of long and of short dives.

Asha de Vos has not stopped here. In the Coastal Conservation Lab of the University of California in Santa Cruz where she is working now, she collaborates with scientists from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in order to predict the living and travelling area of the whales using ecological models of habitat. Indeed, the Indian Ocean waters are full of boats and ships that crash into whales. Knowing where are the whales will permit to deviate the ship tracks and minimise the strikes. Scientists could also use these simulations to better understand the effects on the whales behaviour of the temperature rise due to climate change. Are Pygmea whales staying into the same tropical waters because they are lazy or because they can not live anywhere else?


It is not only about understanding the animal, it is also about its protection, and the protection of the whole sea ecosystem that rely on the whales. Asha de Vos does whatever it takes. She draws whales with kids, dives into the blogosphere to communicate about the so-called « unorthodox whale», becomes a TED member where she gives a few conferences, uses Twitter and multiplies the appearances into the media (Wired UKNew Scientist…). In the british press but also, and mostly, in her country where she repeats again and again the same words. Many researchers are upset about seeing her in the media “wasting time”.  But she can not help doing it. For her, science is lost if it does not go out from the labs.

Recent events are proved her right. Eventually the Sri Lankan minister declared in 2010 that the navigation paths will not be changed for the whales. A first victory for Asha! Politicians have finally pronounced the word « whale ». Therefore, she  kept talking about whales and ship strikes again and again, showing photos of accidents people have send to her. And the second victory occurred in May 2014: the Sri Lankan government announced that the tracks of boats will be modified to take whales into account. And she is now working with them studying the impacts of the deviation in order to find the most economical and ecological solution.
The government awareness did not come easily. Asha de Vos have participated to many political meetings where she was ignored, simply because she was a woman, moreover young. Yet, she was not discouraged. « I will always be too young and I will always be a woman ». Fortunately the government has accepted her.
More than sexism, the economical issues of Sri Lanka are a concern for Asha de Vos. In a near future, she wants to go back to her mother country and create a non profit marine organisation that helps wildlife conservation by education. She wants to help science and socio-economic development in developing countries.

Asha de Vos will not stop making sense of her life. Her overflowing enthusiasm and her radiant resolution are impressive. The kind of woman that makes us forget all about the princess tales: it is way more fun and passionate to be a wired researcher.


 Credit : Spencer Lowell

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