Danielle Jayewardene, Ph.D.
University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
- Zoology (Ph.D.) 2009
- Zoology (M.S.) 2007
King’s College London
- Biology (B.Sc. Honors) 2000
The year was 2000 and I had a freshly earned biology undergraduate degree in hand from the University of London (King’s College London), but with no idea as to what I wanted to do in life. I was tired of studying and graduate school was not at all appealing to me initially. So I worked in a dive shop as a salesperson in central London for a few months, then worked in a small biotechnology lab in Stockholm, Sweden. Over the span of that year, I felt restless. I wanted a different lifestyle. I wanted to be outdoors more, in the ocean especially, yearned to keep learning, and to somehow make some difference in the world.
Having lived in five countries and four continents already (my mum is Swedish and my dad is Sri Lankan), my mindset was that the world was my oyster. There were no limits to where I could go and what I could do. I loved the ocean, and felt strongly about the global need to avert threats to it and conserve it.
Given that education is often key to helping one propel forward, I began to search online for masters level degree programs worldwide focusing on the U.S. and Australia. I found the ideal lab at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UH Mānoa) doing work on coral reef ecology, where Chuck Birkeland was part of the Hawai‘i Cooperative Fishery Research Unit. I simply emailed him and asked if he had space and an interest in taking me in as a graduate student. He did, so I applied to UH Mānoa and was grateful to be accepted. On July 31, 2002, I got off a plane at Honolulu International Airport with a single suitcase in hand, never before having set foot on the island or the U.S. for that matter. From day one, I loved Hawai‘i and Chuck’s lab at UH Mānoa. What I had thought would be a two-year stint living in the Hawaiian Islands getting a master’s degree in Zoology turned into now living here indefinitely after obtaining a Ph.D. and landing a perfect job. I found my husband here, and as of early November 2014 we are parents to a wonderful little daughter born in Hawaii.
So what is this perfect job I landed? Of course no job is perfect, there have been ups and downs over the 6 years I’ve had it. However, it has provided me the perfect opportunity to apply all my skills, and to keep learning and growing as a professional. I work as a coral reef ecologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). I use my scientific training daily and apply it to real world scenarios in marine conservation, just as I had once desired upon embarking upon the graduate school journey. I apply federal laws to regulate impacts to marine habitat around not only Hawai‘i, but also the U.S. affiliated Pacific Islands. I work with federal and state agencies, communities and a range of stakeholders to promote on the ground conservation of coral reefs. My position involves conducting fieldwork via SCUBA, travel, training and opportunities to meet various people. I am convinced the UH Mānoa experience and Ph.D. has been key not only in initially receiving the job offer, but also in doing the job well. I have the science background and familiarity with local resources, both natural and human, needed for it.
My advice for anyone interested: choose a field of study that allows you to do what you love, but be practical about the path you choose keeping an end goal that will actually make you happy in mind. Sometimes you have to jump through tedious or boring hoops to get to where you want. Jump on opportunities to learn about a range of projects and subjects, you never know where these will take you. Learning good social skills is key. Be open to collaborating with people during your academic years; these relationships may become important to you later in your career. Embrace setbacks. If you “fail” at something, it’s a great opportunity to learn and grow. Importantly, reach for the stars and enjoy the ride!