Katy’s work researching marine Genetic Resources has played an important role in ongoing United Nations negotiations over the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. Katy is also one of the founders of the Tetepare Descendants’ Association in the Solomon Islands.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up on Rendova Island, in Solomon Islands’ Western Province. I spent all my childhood in the village, right by the sea. So the ocean has always been part of me. After completing my primary and high school education in the Solomon Islands, I went to Fiji to do my undergraduate studies in Physics and Chemistry at the University of the South Pacific, before heading to Sydney (Australia) to do Masters of Science research into the medicinal properties of natural products (plants). This was at the time of The Tensions in the Solomons, so I couldn’t go home to do my field research and I ended up taking synthetic organic chemistry as an alternative. Later, I went to the UK and did my PhD in Chemistry at the University of East Anglia before returning to the Pacific.
What was it like being separated from the Pacific?
Growing up in Rendova, you see the sea everyday, you swim all day long, you fish, you play; the ocean is engrained into everything you do. It’s part of you.
So when I went away for studies, I faced the challenges of being an islander in a big city; it was hard being so disconnected from my island home, more so especially when someone back home was sick, or if a loved one passed away. On the weekends we’d always try to go to the beach but its not the same; too many people and way too cold. For me, one of the hardest things was just not being able to swim in the sea. I think the entire time I was in the UK, I only swam once or twice in the sea; it was just too cold.
How do you describe your job?
I work in the ocean sciences, specifically in marine natural products from marine organisms which we collect through SCUBA diving or snorkeling along the coast. We work in diverse habitat types to collect samples and my work has exposed me to other areas of ocean sciences like ocean acidification and blue carbon restorations for example restoration of mangroves. One of our projects looks at mangrove restoration as mitigation for ocean acidification, among many other areas. Although I started off as a ‘natural product chemist’, now most of the work I do is focused on the ocean.
I also taught at the University of the South Pacific for about 7 years, and most of my research has been focused on the medicinal potential of marine organisms and now ocean acidification and restoration work which we do with the communities we work in. For me, the ocean is everything. It’s part of my life and I have also made a career out of it.
What work are you most proud of?
Our work in marine genetic research has been very important for the Pacific Island negotiators at the negotiations over the International Treaty on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) – on how countries can appropriately manage the biodiversity of ocean areas beyond their ocean borders. A lot of the work we have been doing in Fiji, we have been able to share this work with the Pacific delegates at the UN in New York and elsewhere, to help them understand Marine Genetic Resources which is all the things you can extract from marine organisms to discover what potential there is for medicine, agriculture and other areas. I am also part of the CROP expert team that has been advising the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner to help them with their international negotiations.
I am also proud to be a founding member and also part of the board and management of the Tetepare Descedants Association, an rganization which is focused on protecting the biodiversity of the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific, Tetepare Island. It’s a project that is community-owned, community-led and managed that everyone can get involved in and is very proud of. I travel home to the Solomon Islands every year to help. Not only do I get to bring the science through in this important project, but it also keeps me connected to my roots and my community. I can still take my children there (Tetepare) today and it is the same as it was when I was young – that’s something very special and close to my heart.
What drives you?
My students, my community, my colleagues. I’m always passionate about learning together with them and better understanding our oceans through science, that can help us find solutions to other problems. The ocean provides us with food, medicine, the potential for clean energy; we need to safeguard this as well. If the work we do for instance, can provide solutions to some of the health problems we face – that’s an added bonus.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing our oceans in 2020?
Climate change and its associated impacts such as warming temperatures, sea levels rising and ocean acidification. In the Pacific, while we have a negligent contribution to greenhouse gases; we’re at the forefront facing the harsh impacts of climate change like extreme weather events and biodiversity loss.