Easkey Britton: ‘The sea is a powerful mirror to what’s going on in society’

26 Apr 2018

Easkey Britton riding a wave. Image: Christian McLeod

When she’s not taking to the waves, Inspirefest 2018 speaker and scientist Easkey Britton is working with communities to raise awareness of the massive problem that is plastic waste.

As we’ve come to learn when talking about those involved in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), the idea that it is just for straight, white men is from a bygone era.

In its place is one where anyone with the right determination can and should get into it, even though the fight to make this the norm is ongoing.

One such scientist outside what would have been once considered the norm is Dr Easkey Britton, an internationally renowned professional surfer, artist, scientist and explorer from Donegal.

Earlier this year, she was named as part of the line-up of this year’s Inspirefest, where she plans to talk about her recent research and how she believes the ocean can help us both spiritually and for the greater good of society.

Just to list some of her achievements, she is a five-time Irish national surf champion and holds a PhD in marine environment and society.

However, she would admit that her real work lies in promoting a healthy relationship between people and the sea by using her passion for the ocean to jump-start social change.

In 2013, she travelled to Iran where she introduced the sport of surfing to women and local communities, featured in the award-winning documentary film Into the Sea.

‘Surfing has skewed everything in my life’

It will come as no surprise that Britton’s passion for surfing since a young age has been hugely influential on her career, particularly when it comes to her research.

“Surfing has skewed everything in my life,” she said with a laugh to Siliconrepublic.com. “I look at the world … entirely influenced by that connection I have with the sea because it’s been there my whole life, literally since before I can remember.

“It’s just an innate part of my make-up in terms of who I am, so it’s absolutely influenced my desire to want to explore more about [marine science] because I’ve been so immersed in it. It’s also a natural thing to want to better understand the environment that I’ve immersed myself in.”

One such effort is the Nature and Environment to Attain and Restore (NEAR) Health project being undertaken at NUI Galway, aiming to connect people with blue and green nature spaces.

More generally, the NEAR Health project is to design and pilot inclusive nature-based solutions to assist communities in valuing a healthy environment, maintaining healthy lifestyles, and promoting and restoring wellbeing.

A global problem

For Britton, her wellbeing comes directly from the sea, citing how, even with the toughest of weeks in front of her, she knows she can take to the waves and suddenly forget all her worries.

“It’s been essential in how I balance work and play in my life,” she said. “The reason I’ve been able to do what I’ve done career-wise and with academia; I couldn’t have done it without surfing to go to.”

Her research focus is not all about health promotion in humans, though, as she is also passionate about the health of our planet, too – particularly when it comes to plastic waste.

Even in just the past few months, we have been inundated with examples of mass pollution caused by plastic waste, most notably the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, believed to be larger than the state of Texas and containing 1.8trn pieces of non-biodegradable plastic, much of which is microplastics.

Even on the remotest of islands, such as Henderson Island in the Pacific Ocean, the effects of global pollution are depressingly evident.

Spreading ocean literacy

The recent marking of Earth Day (22 April) this year was the culmination of all these environmental tragedies, and Britton has seen it up close and personal when riding the waves.

“I think the sea is such a powerful mirror to what’s going on in society, and that’s what happening right now. We have it washing up on our shore and the tideline is evident of our own human behaviour and attitudes,” she said.

“So now, we have to stand up and pay attention, but it’s also perfect evidence of how interconnected we are with the world around us.”

But the conversation is changing, she added. “Ocean literacy has become a known concept, which is beautiful. Kids think it’s normal to find coloured plastic on the tideline, but [educators] can teach them that isn’t normal.”

One group she is certainly hoping will stand up and pay attention is the next generation of potential students of STEM and the arts (STEAM) as she remembers how important a connection with the world around her was to her interest in science.

Plastic waste

Example of plastic waste washed up on a beach. Image: EPA

Shaking up the STEAM scene

While for Britton it was the curiosity of how ocean tides occur, for others it could be something entirely different. But, crucially, it is how we get the message across to people of all backgrounds that will be key to bringing greater numbers of women and minorities into STEAM.

“[The STEAM scene] could do with a bit of a shake-up. I think storytelling is really important and needs to be made relative to people through lived realities, and show it through more creative ways. There is so much more room for looking at things in a different way and seeing how it influences our lives.”

Speaking of which, Britton said she is excited about the prospect of speaking at Inspirefest as it “hits all the right notes”.

“As an academic and surfer, I get invited to go to events and often you feel you’re the token female,” she admitted. “Constantly being at events and seeing panels being all-male or just lacking in that diversity and perspective, you lose so much opportunity to learn so much more.

“I think Inspirefest represents a shift that’s happening and needs to happen everywhere – the new norm, if you will.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Get your Spring Bird tickets now to join us in Dublin on 21 and 22 June 2018.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic