Leila Nefdt (pronouns: she/her) is a marine biologist with a Masters of Marine Science from Cape Town, South Africa. As a passionate ocean lover and youth educator, Leila shares her journey through this field as well as her experiences as a woman of colour in this space and the importance of mentorship in inspiring the next generation of marine scientists.
From a young age, Leila had always been fascinated by the ocean and about what lay beyond the coastline, a curiosity which has led her to become a marine biologist today.
“It’s funny, it was never really a common career choice for someone from my community but once I’d done my research, it made me more excited to just get this journey going.”
After graduating from high school, Leila enrolled in a Bachelor of Science majoring in Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at the University of the Western Cape in Bellville, in Cape Town. This led to an Honours focused on marine biology. Although she knew she wanted to continue her studies, Leila felt that first she needed some practical experience and applied for several internships, one of which she accepted with the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON).
Leila spent 12 months as a marine scientist investigating marine offshore systems at the SAEON Egagasini Node in Cape Town, which further fuelled her passion for deep sea science as well as an educator for youth groups from surrounding communities. Leila and the team took the learners aboard the research vessels, hosted workshops and marine camps and showed them how to use various measuring instruments used in marine science.
“For me, this was super exciting as I always feel like it’s best to learn from practical experiences.”
And the knowledge and skills that Leila acquired through her internship opened a door for her to continue her studies. Leila enrolled in her Masters at the University of Cape Town focused on marine offshore benthic ecology, looking at the organisms found living on the sea floor off the southern coast of South Africa. The project was titled “Marine ecosystem classification and conservation targets within the Agulhas ecoregion, South Africa” and can be read here. Leila explains –
“We were looking at marine invertebrates found on the sea floor at a depth range of 120-700 meters using an underwater towed camera, which was very cool – and then classifying these ecosystems in terms of the level of protection that was needed to conserve them.”
Having now completed her project, Leila continues to work as a science communication officer at a research centre called the Marine and Antarctic Research centre for Innovation and Sustainability (MARiS), based at the University of Cape Town. She is also a director for a non-profit, Sea the Bigger Picture, involved with beach clean-up initiatives as well as assisting with the facilitation of their citizen science youth program called Defenders of the Blue.
“At the beginning of 2020, I was brought on as a director for the NPO, which was quite a shock to the system but also such an exciting opportunity just to be more involved.”
The program aims to generate participation in ocean conservation activities as well as raise awareness for marine science and demonstrate the careers available in this space. Leila and the team take local high school groups from disadvantaged backgrounds out to participate in ocean monitoring and clean ups, getting them comfortable in the water and giving them a glimpse beneath the waves.
“That’s one of the things that I like to get myself involved with, hopefully trying to change the narrative and bring more representation to marine science… It’s important for learners to see me as a female of colour doing these kinds of things – and being able to share the experiences that I’ve had and the knowledge I’ve managed to build up – to inspire the next generation.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF ROLE MODELS FOR ASPIRING ECOLOGISTS
Although she really enjoyed being in the field of marine science, not having a role model or someone to look up to was extremely challenging for Leila early on in her career journey. However, after finishing high school, Leila finally met a marine scientist through her network which was a game changer for inspiring her to turn her dream career into a reality. She explains –
“I met this wonderful lady, Natasha Karenyi, and I was so fascinated about the work that she was doing and I just fell in love with what she was talking about. And we have kept in contact even to this day – and came onboard as a supervisor for my Masters project. She has been a really great role model in this journey that I have now ventured on.”
“At first, it was a bit daunting, trying to make my way into this unknown space, in terms of my background and the community that I grew up in. But the moment I met Natasha was life changing”
Just by being a marine biologist herself, Natasha showed Leila that a career in marine biology was a real possibility for her as well and has helped her where she could throughout her journey – introducing her to colleagues, teaching her fieldwork and lab skills and opening up many doors.
This experience has inspired Leila to embody the role of a mentor herself for young people who are also fascinated by the underwater world.
Leila’s top advice for all young people is to find their passion in life, whatever it is. She explains –
And once you’ve found that, the next important step is to create a support system around you. Leila suggests a good way to do this is by finding someone within the field you’re passionate about, someone you can look up to – and reach out to them about whether they could guide you or would be willing to be your mentor. Although it can feel daunting approaching strangers either in person or online for career advice or mentorship, most people feel happy to be asked and are more than happy to help you out!
“I don’t see any harm in asking that kind of question. I mean, the worst that they can say is no, which can be a bit of a shock to the system. But I think it’s a great skill that you pick up along the way.”
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Leila? Tune into the podcast or follow her on social media – Leila is on Twitter @lady_leilz and Linked In. You can check out Sea the Bigger picture on Instagram @sea_the_bigger_picture and Maris on Instagram @MARIS_UCT, Linked In, Twitter @MARIS_UCT or at their website.
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