After decades around the world, oceanographer Anya Waite comes home to launch her next excellent adventure on the high seas of academe
Once, many years ago and for no apparent reason, a Portuguese cop claimed the future scientific director of the Ocean Frontier Institute in Halifax was a prostitute.
“I was 20, alone in the Azores, waiting to join a five-week research cruise of the North Atlantic,” Anya Waite recounts. “Suddenly, this guy grabbed my arm and started dragging me down the gangway. He saw I was the only woman among 100 scientists and crew on board. He was sure I was. . .well, you know.”
Then again, people have been saying strange things to the good doctor, about the good doctor, for as long as she can remember.
There was that time, for example, when an academic superior tried to corner her by insisting: “Feminism is over; stop fussing and get back to work.”
There was that other time when a lab supervisor attempted to compliment her by professing: “Your data set gives me a hard on. Thanks.”
And the moment when the new dean of one university, which employed her as the sole female acting head of school, commented that it did not, in fact, employ any female acting heads of school.
It’s not that she goes out of her way to attract the attention of weirdos, she says. It just seems to come naturally (like the violin, which she plays avidly when she’s not examining the biological-physical couplings of marine organisms).
Or maybe it goes with the territory of having worked on almost every continent, doing some of the most prestigious academic jobs, in oceanography and environmental systems engineering, the world has to offer. “You have to put yourself in the way of things,” she smiles broadly. “It’s about the life deeply lived.”
That should come in handy now that she’s at the helm of one of Canada’s more intriguing and recent experiments in public-private sector collaborations. Part think tank, part incubator, part Dragons’ Den, the Ocean Frontier Institute came to life 28 months ago thanks to a $227-million commitment from the feds and various non-governmental agencies to push the limits of collaboration between marine researchers and the rest of us.
Global warming has started the countdown on sustainable innovation in ocean sciences, where practical applications already affect everything from offshore fisheries and aquaculture to transportation and renewable energy.
The Institute, which is led by Dalhousie University and its partners at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Prince Edward Island, aims to cultivate the best, newest ideas in the field.
According to Waite, who became its science head only last year, it’s exciting, timely and necessary. “We’re trying to move ocean studies to a more useful place in the conversation,” she says. “Historically, research is an ivory tower, and we’re really working to break that down; to make the dialogue easier between academics and their potential stakeholders, which include governments, industries and communities. In fact, it won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be a straight line.”
That alone may render her the perfect candidate for the job.
Born and raised in Halifax, the youngest daughter of a famous historian and a woman who had once been arrested for anti-Nazi agitation in her native Croatia, Waite’s early life wasn’t exactly placid or predictable.
“Dad taught classes and wrote books, but most of all he loved to just get up and head out the door and into the woods,” she says about her father P.B. Waite, now 97. “My sister Nina and I would put on back packs and go with him when we could. He was passionate about conservation. He actually wanted to be a forester. In fact, he was one of the reasons Crystal Crescent Beaches became a provincial park. He and three of his walking buddies from Dal arranged to have the land purchased from the owner, who had wanted to turn it into a gravel pit, and put into the Province’s hands.”
Her late mother Masha, meanwhile, was a force to be reckoned with. “She once hosted a delegation of Chinese economists in the 1970s before that country’s markets had opened up,” Waite says. “At one point during dinner, my mother blurted, ‘Chinese economists, eh? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?’ To their credit, they loved it. The thing about her was that you couldn’t really get away with anything. She expected us kids to perform academically, engage with the world, stay fit, and, above all, challenge shoddy thinking wherever we encountered it.”
It was a tall order, and Waite did her best to fill it. After high school, she studied violin, thinking she might become a concert musician. She switched to English because, she says, she loved to write. But biology grabbed her and held on tight. And she was good at it, though that did not always guarantee smooth sailing.
The thing about inheriting both your father’s and mother’s passions and principles—wanderlust and intellectual honesty in equal measure—is that you tend to invite a certain amount of disruption into your life. So it was for Waite in the early 1990s, when, having earned a BSc from Dalhousie and a PhD from the University of British Columbia, she entered a post-doc program at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.
She hated it. “I left because I was devastated that the conversation there wasn’t about science anymore,” she says. “It was about money just when funds were shrinking.”
She thought about becoming an orthodontist because, she laughs now, “At least I’d have a dental plan.” Instead, she took a job running a microscopy lab in New Zealand. Then, after conducting a seminar for that country’s National Institute for Water and Atmosphere, she fell in love with oceanography all over.
She embarked on research excursions, honed her academic skills and credentials, published original papers on complex topics, and embraced the rigours of teaching and training young minds. In 1997, she moved to the University of Western Australia in Perth, where she rose to the lofty position of Winthrop Professor of Environmental Systems Engineering.
But eventually, she ran afoul of that institution’s old boy network. “I was there for 17 years, most of them good ones,” she says. “But, it sort of closed in on me. There were serious gender issues. As I was getting more and more senior, I was getting more and more push back to the point where I was worried about my career.”
Then came an offer in 2014 from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, of section head for polar biological oceanography to lead studies in, among other things, the micro-environments of the tiny marine plants and animals known collectively as plankton.
The move was a sea change, both figuratively and literally. “I thought here’s a spot where I can actually say what’s on my mind. I came from a place that said, ‘Please do sit down and be quiet,’ to one that said, ‘Speak up, we hired you for your brain. . .der kopf.’”
As chance would have it, that cognitive derring-do was precisely what Halifax’s Ocean Frontier had been searching for. “From the moment she arrived last year, her enthusiasm at being back in Atlantic Canada and for ocean research were immediately evident,” says Wendy Watson-Wright, CEO of the institute. “Her abundant energy and ideas will certainly help us achieve a lasting legacy.”
Adds Waite’s long-time colleague Paul Snelgrove, OFI’s Newfoundland-based associate scientific director who undertook his own post-doc at Woods Hole when Waite was there: “Working with her again, I can see her passion has not diminished whatsoever. It’s great to have her back playing a critical role for ocean sciences here in Atlantic Canada. She is already making a difference.”
Waite admits she wasn’t looking for a move back to her origins. But the timing seemed as irresistible as the opportunity. After 30 years abroad, here was a chance to bring it all home, squaring the big, broad circle that has been her life.
Now comfortably ensconced in her hometown with her husband and kids, in a job she’s frankly crazy about, is she worried that things will get strange again, that the weirdos will come out to play again?
She shrugs and smiles slightly.