“The whale is my gateway species,” says W2O member and biologist Elizabeth Stephenson with a laugh. “After a whale watch off of Montauk while visiting my relatives in my early teens I was transfixed and told my parents that I wanted to study animals in the ocean and be a biologist.” That was the start of her unconventional journey to becoming Program Chair of the Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF) at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ)
Childhood dreams sometimes get sidetracked and Elizabeth went on to study history and finally Earth Science Education, deciding to pursue a career teaching the subject she loved to 9th graders. Luck would have it that her sites were still on her goal of becoming a biologist when a graduate course was offered at the College of the Atlantic and she signed up. Her teacher? Famed ocean scientist and explorer Greg Stone, mentor to Elizabeth still, former V.P. of Conservation at NEAQ, currently Chief Scientist for Oceans at Conservation International and Special Advisor for Oceans at the World Economic Forum. “Taking this course on “Whales, Porpoises, and Seals” was eye-opening for me and, even though I loved teaching, I felt compelled to continue on a path towards marine science.”
Today Elizabeth splits her time between raising two boys at her home in Maine and the New England Aquarium. Part of the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, MCAF is described as a “micro-granting” program that funds conservation projects around the world led by the folks that live in the places where the research is taking place. MCAF gives support and builds enduring relationships with entrepreneurial marine scientists that engage in local conservations projects sometimes in places that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. MCAF has been an important platform for emerging ocean heroes, often selecting grantees to spend time at the Aquarium, strengthening their connections with the Anderson Cabot Center researchers and sharing inspiration and enthusiasm with Aquarium youth audiences and the public. Like grassroots “boots on the ground, these “fins in the ocean” researchers, often from underrepresented nations, work with their communities to protect habitat, species and solve issues that benefit both marine life and the livelihood of the people that depend on the ocean.
The stories of these MCAF scientists is often both a beacon of hope and a blueprint for moving forward meaningfully with progress on pressing issues facing the sea. Save the Date! On May 15th, Women Working for Oceans will welcome MCAF Fellow, Asha de Vos, PhD, as our keynote speaker for Think Big: A Passion Lived. An Ocean Saved.
De Vos, a marine scientist from Sri Lanka, and founder of Oceanswell, studies the Sri Lankan blue whale and with the support of Elizabeth, MCAF and others has become a leading expert in her field with numerous awards and accolades for her work. “I am so privileged to have worked with Asha as an MCAF Fellow and so excited that she will be presenting her inspiring work at W2O’s event. She is the epitome of “Think Big” through not only her commitment to her own research but with her work to train future marine conservationists and policy-makers in Sri Lanka,” says Stephenson. “Asha inspires the next generation of ocean leaders across the globe.”