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How connecting your passion and career can lead to global change

Dr Easkey Britton: surfer, environmentalist and Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Whitaker Institute

Easkey Britton is Ireland’s five-time surfing national champion. Her passion for surfing has served to connect people, empower women and support cleaner oceans worldwide.

At the time of writing, I sit in the Whitaker Research Institute for Social Innovation and Societal Change, NUI Galway, where the official title on the door reads ‘Dr. Easkey Britton’. When people hear the title Dr. Britton – the image that pops into their heads is too often male rather than female.

I’ve learnt from other women in my field that its important to use the title to adjust expectations of women in science. I’m Dr. Easkey Britton but I never planned to become an academic… I just followed my passion.  

Surfing for change

My journey began with the beautiful accident of where I was born and how I was raised – in North West Donegal, by one of the first surfing families in Ireland. At four-years old, I learned to surf with my father. The ocean has been an ever-present force in my life since then. Although there are moments of fear, out there in the big waves, the ocean is my playground. I feel at home.

I had an unconventional route into academia – studying at the ‘college of life’ as my Dad says – dedicating my energy, instead, to competitive surfing in my teenage years and early twenties. The experience of travelling, as a surfer, totally inspired me to pursue a career in environmental science. Being immersed in nature, you are at the frontline of environmental change. You are victim to illness from sewage overflows or from wading through harmful plastics.

Gaining so much joy from the ocean comes a feeling of responsibility. I wanted to give something more back than just rubbish and waste.

How passion creates projects

Following my passion lead me to alter the stories of international coastal communities. I worked through positive social change and connection, with projects such as the ‘Surf for Social Good Summit’ in Bali and ‘Waves of Freedom’ in Iran, which pioneered women’s surfing there.

I am co-lead of an NUI Galway programme for restoring wellbeing and healthy lifestyles in Ireland. The course connects people with nature to restore health and wellbeing to Ireland. Unusually for STEM occupations, the research team is mostly women. It’s a wonderfully supportive environment with a real mix of disciplines.  

Other international causes also perform wonders with an all female cast. Ocean Collectiv – a global think-tank for ocean solutions – is lead by Dr Avana Johnson, the queen of marine conservation.

The ocean doesn’t discriminate

In secondary school, I was told that there would be no jobs for me in environmental science. That proved to be false. Now, there is more opportunity for future generations as environmental issues affect every single sector. It has become increasingly relevant in business, technology, politics – it’s totally cross-cutting.

We are at ‘ebb tide’ with this movement. For too long, women have been under the surface, invisible because our networks and pathways have differed to men’s. Thankfully, the way we are educating young girls as to what is possible for them is changing. 

I read an article in a women’s surf magazine when I was twelve years old. I remember opening it up and seeing this double page spread of a woman in a wet suit, surfing in cold water, who was also a scientist. I was like, ‘Wow, it is possible!’ It’s amazing what an impact seeing positive images, which counter damaging stereotypical associations, can have – especially on young girls.

Be patient for the next break

While teaching in secondary schools and in NUI Galway, I noticed a real pressure on women to be career driven and to become leaders. A pressure to be everything; to have it all and do it all. But it’s too easy to burn out when under constant pressure to be someone or something.

It takes time to explore, to feed your curiosity and ultimately discover the career path that’s right for you. For me, it’s about taking risks, showing a willingness to fail and owning those failures when they come. If you allow for the ‘ebb and flow’ of life, true balance and career satisfaction will follow.

photo credits: Tomas Hein

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