Two hands outstretched, one holds sea shells and the other holds plastic bottle caps.

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The Edinburgh Ocean Leaders

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Learning at the University of Edinburgh takes many shapes and forms and is not limited to any specific age group. Here, we discover how the University is supporting mid-career graduates to fulfil a shared desire to make the world a better place.

Launching a global network during a pandemic was always going to be a challenge, but despite the worldwide restrictions the Edinburgh Ocean Leaders network brought together not just one, or even two, but three cohorts of learners and creative thinkers, on a mission to develop better and more equitable stewardship for our oceans and marine environments.

In a small community hall in East Lothian near Edinburgh, a group of people from different countries, backgrounds, and sectors gathered in 2022, meeting each other for the first time after two years of Zoom calls and travel bans.

What brought them together was a shared passion and drive to do something to secure a better future for the world’s oceans and the people and animals whose lives depend on them.

Underwater image of a shoal of fish swimming by.

“I remember getting extremely emotional during our first in-person meeting,” says deep-sea marine biologist Dr Diva Amon. “The breadth of expertise and passion around was almost overwhelming. I was sitting in a room with people who were change-makers, which, while a ‘buzzword’ is the only way to describe them.”

The group were meeting as the newest members of a global network, the Edinburgh Ocean Leaders programme, hosted by the University and supported by philanthropy.

Strength in numbers

The Edinburgh Ocean Leaders programme identifies and brings together emerging ocean leaders from around the world, with a focus on mid-career professionals. It supports ocean leaders in situ so they can make a difference from where they live and work, while being inspired by several face-to-face gatherings whenever possible. Edinburgh Ocean Leaders receive leadership coaching and have access to platforms to contribute ideas and knowledge as individuals, but also collectively, and they have a diverse peer network brimming with ideas and experiences.

The programme was established in 2020 by Sandy Tudhope, Professor of Climate Studies, and Meriwether Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Marine Science and Science Policy in the University’s School of GeoSciences.

Now in its third year, the programme has three cohorts of 24 Ocean Leaders, representing 19 countries across five continents – all with the same breadth of opportunities to learn and contribute.

Members come from academia, policy, law, conservation, art and activism, but what they all have in common is an ability to step up and make a difference. By bringing them together and developing their potential further, it’s hoped they can make an even bigger impact.

“We want to accelerate the reach and influence of really creative and talented people already making things happen in the ‘ocean space’,” explains Dr Wilson. “Working with current leaders in the field, we want to build a learning network for the next generation of ocean change-makers, to give them the confidence and skills that will allow them to be even more influential. And we want this community to have a global impact.”

Net-zero networking

Financial support from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and the Baillie Gifford Investment Trust and individual donors, makes it possible for Ocean Leaders to participate fully, and to make a difference from where they live and work – an essential part of the vision if this scheme is to truly represent the voices and experiences of those who may be most affected by environmental change.

“We want to provide the benefits of a global network, but without anyone having to leave their place of work and the good stuff already being done, and without individuals having to pay,” says Professor Tudhope. “That’s why it’s been really important for us to receive financial support, in order to give this opportunity to the worthiest not the wealthiest.”

Reaching different audiences

Deep-sea biologist Dr Diva Amon joined the programme in 2021. Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, Diva’s affinity with the ocean was almost inevitable, though it was studying in the UK that started her marine biology career, when she developed her interest in under-explored, deep-sea environments. After completing her PhD she began to think about how her work could make a tangible difference.

Dr Diva Amon sits at a desk with a plaque and talks into a microphone.

“It was during my postdoc, where I was able to start thinking about identifying the human impacts in this poorly known ecosystem, the deep sea, and thinking about how we can begin to mitigate them and ensure that robust science is informing the policy decisions that are being made – now and in the near future, that will ultimately determine the future of the ocean,” she says.

Since then, she has continued to research deep-sea habitats and how they are affected by human impacts, moving into academic consultancy. Viewers of Will Smith’s documentary Welcome to Earth will have spotted Diva taking the Hollywood A-lister into the deep sea, sharing her expertise on camera.

As well as contributing knowledge at a global level, she is committed to tackling local issues, co-founding SpeSeas, a not-for-profit organisation that uses education and advocacy to promote and encourage healthy ocean stewardship in her home, Trinidad and Tobago.

Timing is everything

Joining the Edinburgh Ocean Leaders programme in 2021 came at a pivotal time for Diva, just as she was venturing into the world of freelancing, leaving behind the security of a lab environment as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Natural History Museum.

“I didn’t really understand how critical being part of the Ocean Leaders programme was,” recalls Diva. “It not only provided community, which I was so keen for, but exposed me to this phenomenal cohort of ocean leaders around the world who absolutely will be lifelong friends and collaborators and everything in between.”

And the career benefits also stood out for her. “The coaching that we got was just phenomenal. There are lessons learnt that I will continue to take with me for the rest of my career,” she says.

“It targets that really challenging time in your career,” Diva continues. “Whether you’re on an academic path like I am, or you work for an NGO or you’re a decision maker or a policymaker. Having that support during that point of your career is so important in preventing people from falling out of that leaky pipeline.”

Support for inspiring careers

Lucy Babey, Head of Science and Conservation and Deputy Director for marine charity ORCA UK, has just joined the 2022 cohort for Edinburgh Ocean Leaders. Ten years ago Lucy was working as a critical care nurse, but nudged by an enduring childhood fascination for the ocean, she switched career to marine conservation, beginning her journey as a citizen science volunteer observing whales and dolphins for the charity she now works for.

Lucy Babey uses binoculars to look out across the ocean from a boat window

“ORCA UK is a whale and dolphin charity based in the UK and our mission is to give everyone who cares about whales and dolphins this active role to care about their future, irrespective of your background,” says Lucy. “Whales and dolphins are indicator species so by monitoring them they can act as a potential warning system for wider ecosystem changes,” she explains.

“What I’ve loved about being in this role over the last eight years, is seeing how the credibility of citizen science has grown. The dedicated government-led scientific surveys are fantastic but they’re very expensive and you can’t send them out all the time, so this is where the citizen science holds such a valuable place because it plugs the gaps. The data comes straight into our data portal. We see it live and we can be alerted to changes in the ocean, which means we can investigate it and then feed that back to policymakers as its happening.”

When a network becomes a movement

Lucy Babey stands on a boat, wearing a blue high vis vest and holding binoculars

For Lucy, being part of the Edinburgh Ocean Leaders, has given her the confidence to recognise her own capabilities and leadership. However, it’s the potential for the programme to have an impact beyond each individual’s own projects or areas that makes the opportunity especially compelling.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have been nominated for it and to be accepted. I am still pinching myself that I have this opportunity. There’s nothing else like it out there. I’m from a small organisation that can’t afford to send me all around the world for conferences, so by enabling people, irrespective of background or size of organisation, to come together and knowledge-share, you get so much from it. If we pool our expertise, there’s the opportunity to do something absolutely incredible,” she says.

“I really hope that in hundreds of years to come there is a really healthy ocean, an ocean that is alive with whales and dolphins, corals growing, with the fantastic ecosystems really thriving independently and with as little impact that us as humans have on it, so we can live sustainably and in harmony,” Lucy enthuses.

“I think that’s where this Ocean Leaders programme can really play a part,” she continues. “If we can set the foundations for others to follow, be those ocean leaders that inspire, that educate, that actually make a difference, and that future generations can aspire to be, I think that would be fantastic.”