A plot twist toward a new story

09 November 2021

The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh started painting at the age of 27. Penelope Fitzgerald, the prestigious British author of Offshore, started her literary career aged 58. Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen recorded his first album at the age of 30. 

These tree people had a calling for art, literature or music in their lives far before when it became what we know them for. 

Oihane Fernández also started to make her move towards her calling, marine sciences, after years of struggle with the unemployment crisis. First, she studied Biology, then she worked as a hotel receptionist, interviewer, waitress and a diving instructor, until she decided to set sail on what would go on to become her true calling. At the age of 29, she moved from Murcia to Costa de la Luz to study Marine Sciences at the University of Cádiz. “I told myself, it’s now or never. I saved all the money I could and took the plunge.” 

Oihane Fernández and her team are working to build an automatic detector for dolphin vocalisations based on artificial intelligence and deep learning.Oihane Fernández and her team are working to build an automatic detector for dolphin vocalisations based on artificial intelligence and deep learning.

“At the age of 18, I wasn’t mature enough to make the most of the resources I had available at university. But during my second degree, I enjoyed every last hour of class,” said Oihane, who is now sure that her age worked in her favour. “I made the most of the opportunities at university: I did an internship with a company, I applied for 3 exchange grants with which I got to collaborate with various departments, etc.” All of these experiences helped her to discover that her love for the sea was hiding her calling to do research. 

That was when the ”la Caixa” Foundation fellowship came into play, which helped her to do an MSc in Marine and Fisheries Ecology. “It helped me get to the University of Aberdeen. That’s how I met my current PhD supervisor.” Now, Oihane is working as a researcher at the same university and collaborates with researchers around the world. “Without the support from the fellowship, it would have been very difficult to get to where I am today. I was much older than the other applicants and, even so, they believed in me. I will always be very grateful.” 

In the UK, she is researching the behaviour of bottlenose dolphins and how they are affected by human actions such as marine noise pollution. Sound generated by the construction of offshore wind farms can travel very far under the sea. “We are building a lot of them, and we still don't know what long-term effect they will have on sea creatures,” she said.

Oihane and her team are working to build an automatic detector for dolphin vocalisations based on artificial intelligence and deep learning. “It would be useful to train the algorithm to automatically detect the “signature” whistles. These whistle noises are unique to each individual and are what the dolphins use to identify each other.” If we can track the behaviour of each individual, we can look into whether noise pollution affects bottlenose dolphin survival and reproduction rates. “Renewable energies are the future, and our research will provide data on the impact, both positive and negative, that these activities can have on marine ecologies.

We asked her if she had any tips for young people who still don’t know what to do with their academic future. “Remember you're not alone. I was one of those people, and it took me a long time to decide what I wanted to do. If you're still not sure, take your time to work out what you like,” she said.
 

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