Sheena Talma – Marine Science is not always rainbows and butterflies

Author: Thimedi Hetti

Sheena Talma, a marine scientist and deep-sea enthusiast from the Seychelles, is a freelance consultant currently working as a science & knowledge exchange program manager at Nekton and D’Arros experience co-ordinator at Save Our Seas Foundation. Sheena is also a part-time lecturer at the University of Seychelles with some prior experience working at the Ministry of Agriculture, Climate Change and Environment. Today, we discuss Sheena’s journey into marine science, the importance of intersectionality and hopes for the future.

Sheena Talma (photo credit: Sarah Hammond)

What was it like growing up in the Seychelles and what sparked your interest in marine science?

"I grew up surrounded by the ocean and the mountains, the third child in a family of four children. My relationship with the ocean hasn’t always been rainbows and butterflies: a near drowning experience as a child instilled a fear in me, which was largely overcome with support of my parents. I think the experience allowed me to have huge respect for the power of our ocean and nurtured an immense curiosity for this environment, whilst still unequivocally fearing it (in a good way!). So unlike many marine scientists, it wasn’t always my dream to work within oceanic environments. In fact, I thought I would be a conservationist." 

Tell us about your current work and the Aldabra Clean-up Project?

"My job revolves around talking to science partners, developing knowledge exchange programs within the Western Indian Ocean, guiding stakeholder processes and coming up with ideas to make the deep sea more accessible for all. The great thing about being in my shoes now is that I get to be involved in an array of activities and have interactions across various groups learning valuable experiences.

"I was fortunate to be part of the collaboration between the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF) and Queen's College (Oxford) to tackle the issue of plastic pollution on Aldabra Atoll, an iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was challenging: 13 volunteers collected 25 tons of discarded, washed-up plastic- and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Can you imagine, how much plastic is floating around, especially in the form of fishing gear causing the death of organisms through ghost-fishing?

"During the 5-week clean up expedition, the biggest challenge, apart from navigating the harsh terrain, was mostly the endless stream of rubbish being washed or dug up from years of accumulation. It was also clear that the rubbish was coming from other parts of the world, a clear reminder that the damages caused by one nation have a ripple effect on others. We can try and mitigate the effects once rubbish is in the ocean, but it really must start on land. We must stop it at the source. 

"Island Under Siege: the story of the Aldabra Clean-Up Project is a short documentary highlighting the project and its outcomes if you would like to find out more."

Is it common to go into marine science in the Seychelles?

"Not at all! I remember when my parents went to the government to ask for a scholarship for me to study, my grades were good enough but there was no demand for marine biology at the time. Eventually, I secured additional funding with my parents and kept knocking on their doors until I succeeded. I was the first of my family to go to university, so I didn’t exactly have a reference point. But I had great mentors and an amazingly supportive family. I am also privileged to have been on scholarships or won grants for the duration of my studies. 

"Now, Seychelles is a huge advocate for ocean science. It’s almost trendy now to be a marine biologist, which is great! Within the marine field, it’s mostly women, but men still hold the decision-making positions. So, until there’s that equality at the top, there is still work to be done." 

What do you think about the importance of mentorship?

"I had two main mentors in my teen years: a brilliant biology teacher and the manager at my holiday job as an assistant conservationist. Both women were scientists from Europe who really furthered my interest in biology and believed in my abilities, more than I did myself. At the time in Seychelles, there weren’t many Seychellois female scientists but I am really glad that has changed. Now, I have a myriad of mentors. I also love the power of social media, it’s amazing to see the array of women scientists, especially women from previously disadvantaged backgrounds that are making waves and leading the charge in their fields despite certain obstacles and pressing issues."

What can you say about the issue of parachute science?

"The world we live in today has no space for sexism, racism, homophobia, and other practices including parachute science. These attitudes all stem from a hierarchical and unequitable mindset. 

"Within the structure I worked in at the government, I was lucky to have strong women above me, however, I think that qualified women are still doing the majority of the grunt work and are still not recognized for their abilities to lead in many fields. Many graduates that earn an MSc or PhD in science and research re-invent themselves as consultants (yours truly) or get absorbed into government as managers because the institutional and financial support for research has not yet been paved. 

"Here in the Seychelles, we have a long way to go towards recognizing the need for science as one of the major tools towards informing sound policy.  Maybe it’s because a lot of our science was historically conducted and led by foreign nationals and had little involvement from the locals. It’s not about not having foreign nationals, we need everybody. The problem arises when an outside expert sets the narrative while local, indigenous knowledge, especially that of women, gets drowned out and labelled as inferior. There definitely needs to be a shift in leadership or co-leadership so people can see mentors and scientific experts being created from their own communities."

What advice would you share with someone wanting to get into the field?

"Perseverance. When someone says ‘no’, try and find another way. Search for a mentor, someone who you want to learn from, knock on their door, speak to them, find out how they got there. It is also important to never give up - there isn’t just one route to get to where you want to go. It’s about being open to experiences and putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, even if it takes longer and you’re faced with failures. You will get rejected, but you will also learn from the process and receive deserved opportunities that may open unimaginable doors or windows. Finally, work on being an ‘all-rounder’, not just focusing on academics. It is a big world out there!"

Frontiers is a signatory of the United Nations Publishers COMPACT. This interview has been published in support of United Nations Sustainable Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.