Meet La Daana Kanhai, a Trinidadian Marine Scientist and Leg 4 Round the World Crew member.
As part of our Ambassador Spotlight Series we wanted to share La Daana’s Superpower Story.

Having been fascinated with the natural environment from a young age, a career in environmental science came as an obvious choice for La Daana.We caught up about her experience with eXXpedition and how the voyage has helped  her raise awareness among Small Island Developing States (SIDS) about the issue of plastic pollution in the Caribbean Sea.

Scroll to read La Daana’s Superpower Story and the steps she is taking to implement change and overcome the challenges facing SIDS.

If we take it back to the start, where did your love for the ocean come from?

My love for the natural environment, on the whole, would have started in my childhood. I grew up in the countryside and ​​from where I live you can actually see the sea. While I was growing up I was always in direct connection with nature. During my vacations from school, we often visited the beach. I remember being in South Tobago and sitting on a glass bottom boat and just watching what was going on underwater. So, from the very start I had this fascination with the marine environment, and the natural world in general.

I then went to university and secured my Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental and Natural Resource Management and Chemistry. Following that, I worked as an Education Officer at the Pointe-a-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust and then went on to pursue a Masters of Philosophy in Environmental Biology.

Then in 2015 I  would have applied for an Erasmus Mundus PhD scholarship in Marine Ecosystem Health and Conservation. My studies took me all the way to the Atlantic and Arctic Ocean where I got to carry out research examining the issue of plastic pollution in the polar regions. It was fascinating exploring marine environments that were so different from the ones I had grown up around.

What surprised you about your research in the polar regions?

The Arctic Ocean is very remote.  For a long time it was assumed that this remote location was pristine. Despite being so far from major population centres, plastic waste that is generated by humans is making its way to the Arctic Ocean. My studies exposed me to the sheer abundance of microplastics in the sub-surface waters, sea ice and the sediments of the Arctic Ocean. When you find microplastics 4400m underwater you quickly realise the extent of the problem that we are facing.

Science has a huge part to play in resolving the issue of ocean plastics. However, the science is complex and at times overwhelming.

How can we make sure that science is accessible for everyone to understand, not just the “experts”?

Making science accessible is hugely important. The first thing that scientists need to do is to share their research with as many different groups of people that they can. Secondly they need to work out how they can make the information digestible for each of their audiences – and I am not just talking about the general public here. I’m talking about business leaders, policy specialists, government officials as well. All of these stakeholders play a fundamental part in the development and implementation of relevant interventions including policies and legislation.

How did you come aboard the eXXpedition voyage?

I heard about eXXpedition around 2015 or so, a while before the Round the World voyage began. At that time they were planning a voyage in the Caribbean Sea. I had just come back from an expedition in the Atlantic Ocean and my samples were waiting to be processed. I really wanted to join but I was in the first year of my PhD and both my supervisors and I felt that the timing was not right.

Fast forward to a few years to when I heard that they would be coming back through the Carribean for the Round The World voyage. I was determined not to let this second chance pass by. So I applied and the next thing I knew I was aboard the boat!

You have such a wealth of knowledge about science already but was there anything you learnt on the voyage that you weren’t expecting to? 

I was well-informed about the science when I stepped aboard the boat. For example, I understood the sampling and the specific techniques needed for collection and analysis. A bigger eye opener for me, was the work we did on land.  The first day of our voyage we visited a landfill site on Antigua where we had a conversation with the managers about their waste management on the island.

For all of my PhD, I had been so focussed on the ocean that I had not really explored that connection to what was happening on land. But it quickly became clear that when you look at this issue of plastic pollution you can’t study the ocean or the land in isolation. You have to consider both in tandem. Cementing that connection between plastic pollution in the ocean, and waste management on land was a big takeaway for me. 

eXXpedition also emphasised the importance of diversity when it comes to problem solving. Diversity in terms of people, in terms of their ideas, their disciplines and their characters. Perhaps even more important than the science, was realising the importance of an “all hands on deck” approach.

“Perhaps even more important than the science, was realising the importance of an ‘all hands on deck’ approach.”

What is your superpower, and did the voyage help you to discover that?

I’ve always been somebody that has done multidisciplinary research. I have always sought out as many perspectives and voices as I can. Being able to bridge the gap between people and science is really important. Having the ability to talk and connect with lots of different people is a skill that has allowed me to produce the research that I have.

I have always known that about myself but I think that the voyage taught me to never underestimate that skill or let it go to waste.  

“eXXpedition emphasised the importance of diversity when it comes to problem solving.”

Since you returned from your Leg, what work have you been doing?

I have been trying to talk to as many people as I can about what I saw and what I learnt. I have basically shared my experience with people in my sphere of influence (locally, regionally and internationally) through presentations (with schools, companies, and NGOs) and panel discussions.

In terms of my work, in 2019, I was nominated to represent Trinidad & Tobago on the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Scientific Committee on Marine Litter and Microplastics. As part of the committee one of our roles was to advise on and review an upcoming report that provides an update on plastic pollution in the marine environment. I believe that the report will be released sometime in 2022. 

During the reviewing process what elements were discussed?

We spoke a lot about the differentiation of data collection between different nations; Some nations are much further ahead than others in terms of how and what they have collected.

Where does this differentiation come from and how do you navigate these knowledge gaps?

I think what you have to  remember is that for all of these nations plastic pollution is just one of many issues they are facing. Consider for a moment the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Caribbean.

In the last year, there has been a La Soufriere eruption in St. Vincent; we have had our annual hurricane season; and Trinidad and Tobago has seen influx of migrants from Venezuela, not to mention we’re in the middle of a COVID 19 pandemic. Let’s not forget the priority issue of Climate Change and the impacts on SIDS! So for many nations, plastic pollution is one of multiple issues that we are simultaneously tackling. 

Getting to your question, developing nations across the world have limited financial resources to simultaneously tackle multiple issues – social, environmental and economic. In terms of data collection, I think that this is one of the reasons why you’re seeing the differentiation between nations.

To find a solution, we need to be more adventurous, we need to begin thinking further outside the box. To do this, I think we need to recognise that people are a really important part of the conversation. For example, thinking of initiatives that can combine citizens and science and using the resources we already have at our disposal to our advantage.

We may not have the financial resources but we definitely have people with a desire for change. It would be silly to let that resource go to waste. So for me, the solutions come from being adventurous and working with what you do have rather than what you don’t. 

“Solutions come from being adventurous and working with what you do have rather than what you don’t.”

You’ve mentioned some of the challenges that come with being a Small Island Developing State, but what opportunities does it afford?

Firstly, communities on SIDS tend to be very close-knit.  Our people are very proud of where they come from and I think that they are passionate about protecting their coastlines.

Secondly, the scale we are working at is smaller and more manageable. We can see the impact of our actions more immediately. As small nations we can serve as pilots. If an initiative is successful in a small island, that initiative can then be upscaled for implementation in a larger nation.

Lastly, the fact that our economies depend so heavily on our marine resources, we don’t really have a choice but to take action. 

If you could give one message to the world, what would you want to tell them?

We need all hands on deck! We need conversations that involve different groups of people with different backgrounds, and different skill sets. It is this diversity that will make sure we find the most effective solutions!

Photo Credits

With thanks to: Lars Lehnert, Jamie Colman, Emma Feggetter, La Daana Kanhai