Having just turned 40, Owen O’Shea who left Princethorpe in 1998 wrote to the Old Princethorpians over the summer, wanting to share his rollercoaster life journey with us and to reconnect with Moira Weir, his English Teacher who had so inspired him.
He is now Dr O’Shea and CEO and Principal Research Scientist at The Centre for Ocean Research and Education based in the Bahamas. We were relieved to hear that Owen and the Centre had escaped largely unscathed from Hurricane Dorian’s rampage, though sadly many thousands did not.
Owen takes up the story:
I left England in 2002 to go travelling for a year and am, essentially, still on that journey. In this period, the longest I spent back in the UK was three months between October 2003 and January 2004.
During these travels, I had learnt to SCUBA dive, and so became obsessed with the ocean and the concept that creatures existed and ecosystems thrived out of sight, beneath the oceans' waves. A kind of secret yet romantic notion of a hidden world, yet so fundamentally important for our own world. After around 19 months and 11 countries later I returned to the UK, and after a two-week stint in a call centre that consumed me with depression, and a yearning for the adventure I had just left, I accepted an offer to go stay with my mother who had since moved to Cornwall. I felt a change of the familiar, somewhere new with no historical record in my brain or memory would perhaps appease this overwhelming feeling of being just totally lost in life.
I had left Princethorpe College in the summer of 1998 after six years, with average GCSE scores, two appalling A-levels, a suspension and a failed academic career at Thames Valley University where I was kicked out after one semester for attending zero classes or exams. So, come the autumn of 2003, I felt I was starting again, and the realisation that this was all my own doing - or lack thereof - was a harsh reality.
The oceans and her creatures were the fantasies I withdrew into during this time; SCUBA diving in Cornwall, and developing my skills by taking further classes and reaching PADI Rescue diver became my goals and focus. And so, rather impulsively, one day, I made a decision to apply to study undergraduate Marine Science at university - in Australia (where I had spent the greatest proportion of my time travelling).
I applied to ten universities all over the country for an anticipated January 2004 start. I was turned down by nine, considering my academic record at that point, and the fact I was applying as an international student. However, one university had recently (at that time) established a brand new program called 'Uni-Gateway' which was designed for people in my position - those without the A-levels, and so after speaking with the university an offer of enrolment was made for me to join their BSc programme with a major in Marine Biology, conditional on my taking and passing A-level Maths, Chemistry and English. The deal was I would arrive at campus two months before the semester started, and undertake these three courses as intensives, and subject to passing all three, I would be admitted into their Bachelors programme. Failure, at this point was not an option.
That school was James Cook University in Townsville, North Queensland, and later I would come to learn, probably the best in the world for undergraduate Marine Science.
Never had I worked so hard: six days a week full time, plus additional evening classes needed for the Maths element, no respite, tears, beers and fears and an emotional journey like no other as failure of even one of these classes meant my visa would be cancelled and I would be back on the slow, arduous journey back home, and probably back to that call centre. But during this journey, I became engrained in a small group of people and we formed strong bonds; young people from all over the world trying to do the same thing as me. I was awarded an HD (High Distinction > 85%) for English, a C (Credit > 65%) for Chemistry and a P (Pass > 50%) for Maths. And so, my undergraduate Marine Biology journey started.
I achieved one of the highest grade point averages in my third year, and was listed on the Dean's list of academic achievement. I had met a lady and became so obsessed with academic success, marine science and environmental conservation. Due to this GPA, I was invited to submit a research proposal for a post-graduate 'honours' program that is the equivalent of a UK MSc and I was successful in my application. So, in 2006 I graduated with a BSc with a major in Marine Biology from James Cook University and I then started my first post-graduate degree in January of 2007. I was married in March of 2007 and after a rigorous 10-month program of applied marine research, I wrote and submitted a 22,000 word, five-chapter thesis entitled 'The ecology of cleanerfish and their clients'.
After a gruelling peer review process, an exit seminar and a poster presentation I was graded on my efforts and in December of 2007, I was awarded the highest honour for this program – A first class, and began working on my very first manuscript, which I submitted to peer review and eventual publication shortly afterwards (Tide-related periodicity of manta rays and sharks to cleaning stations on a coral reef). January 2008 saw my new wife - Michelle - and I move to Perth, Western Australia as she pursued her career in Hydrogeology, and I promptly got a position as a research technician at The University of Western Australia, and later started working for the Marine Ecosystems Branch of the WA government's Department for Environment and Conservation. We were approved for a mortgage, adopted a labrador from a shelter and I was awarded almost half a million dollars in international graduate scholarships to enable me to begin a PhD program at Murdoch University in Perth's southern suburbs, in a project sponsored by the Australian Federal Government's tropical marine research agency, The Australian Institute of Marine Science - AIMS.
I had published the paper from my honours thesis - life was good. I started my PhD in March 2009 and after three years and ten months I handed in a 55,000 word, nine-chapter thesis entitled 'The ecology and biology of stingrays (Dasyatidae) at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia’. I presented my thesis to the American Elasmobranch Society meeting in Vancouver in 2012 and I was officially conferred in March 2013; publishing my entire thesis within six months. After several months of unsuccessfully applying for post-doctoral positions, academic tenure and marine consultancy roles, Michelle was made redundant, and so all of a sudden, we lost our home, security and slowly the fabric of our nice normal lives became frayed and cracks started showing in our marriage and our sanity.
We exhausted dozens of options on how we could pick ourselves back up and regain some traction, and then out of the blue a job opportunity found its way to my very empty inbox. There was a tiny island in The Bahamas called Eleuthera (derived from the Greek word 'freedom') and in south Eleuthera was a research institute and school, and they were seeking candidates with a PhD for position of Research Associate with the Shark Research and Conservation Program, with teaching commitments at their sister organisation and outreach on this tiny, agricultural island 300 miles east of Miami, Florida.
I went through an exhaustive selection process, including three interviews and eventually I was offered the position some three months after I applied. After discussions with Michelle, we sold our car, all our furniture and pretty much 90% of our material possessions and packed our lives up into seven cubic meters of branded moving company boxes, sent Bob (the rescued labrador) on ahead of us with his own moving company (:)) and in June of 2013 we moved to a small, impoverished community called Deep Creek in the far south of Eleuthera Island, and I started work at The Cape Eleuthera Institute and Island School. In January 2014 I established my own research program with a focus on stingrays, started taking on graduate students from the UK and the USA, and undergraduate students from Newcastle, Plymouth and Exeter. In December 2016 I was promoted as director of the research program, but in January 2017 I handed in my notice due to a thousand reasons, but ultimately because I felt the time was right to establish my own organisation with a specific focus on providing education to the communities of this wonderful island in which I lived, to build capacity and share my passion for conservation – something really needed here.
And so, The Centre for Ocean Research and Education (CORE) was born. I worked an eight-month notice and during this time developed the website, wrote a business plan, started garnering interest and investment, and on the 1st September 2017, I left my professional role as a scientist after four years and two months and set up my own organisation - still on Eleuthera, but in a wonderful little community called Gregory Town, about two hours north and famous for its pineapples.
Fast forward almost two years to August 2019 and I sit here writing to you.
So, in the last two years since CORE started, we have gone from a concept and website, to an internationally recognised centre for excellence in marine research and education.
We have a board of six directors from all over the world and recently acquired our 501(c)(3) status with the IRS, meaning we are a tax exempt public foundation. I serve as the CEO, Principal Research Scientist and Director of Education.
In our first full year of being open and operational (2018) we had almost 600 visitors, including students and visiting scientists come through our doors and I provided free education to almost 300 Bahamian children from the ages of 7 - 18. I currently have several undergraduate and graduate students, both Masters and PhDs, from all over the world, including the Netherlands, the UK and Italy. I am currently managing seven major marine research projects including assessments of seagrass, corals, seahorses, octopus, conch, turtles, sharks and stingrays. I have a fully functioning marine research station and community education centre where we host science events, community outreach presentations, classes and where visiting researchers and collaborators stay.
We rely significantly on science and education grants, philanthropic donations, in-kind support and in 2018 we were awarded $6,500 in grant monies and we separately raised $13,000 through a go-fund-me campaign to get the building, and to establish our research station. Already for 2019, we have been awarded almost $70,000 in science and education grants to conduct our conservation driven marine research and deliver our education programs to the communities of this wonderful island. However, we are constantly trying to raise money to keep our doors open, fans and lights running, and eventually, one day the plan is that I can take a salary!
My wife and I separated in 2014, were divorced in 2017 and we remain firm friends as she pursues her own journey in Sydney. I live way out in the bush with solar and rainwater, 100% off grid, with a wonderful Jamaican woman called Petagay and we are celebrating five years together this year. We have two acres, 70 feet of our own private beach and water front and Lenny Kravitz is our neighbour and huge supporter of CORE (seriously). Bob, the Labrador that I rescued in 2008, lives with us, and while he is portly and slow, he is still very much the sweet puppy I rescued 11 years ago.
Currently, I have over thirty published papers, articles and technical reports in peer reviewed, international science journals, including four more currently in review including my very first in the journal NATURE. I have presented my research findings at 15 international conferences since 2011. Have filmed Blue Planet with the BBC and had our work beamed live into over 7,000 schools across the UK as part of their high school learning that you can access here. We have also filmed documentaries with Nat Geo and WIRED and have also published several short documentaries of our own, that you can access here, that perfectly explains who we are and what we are about. Our first ever annual review for 2018 can be accessed here. Currently, CORE manages projects, educational initiatives and collaborative partnerships with around 12 national and international organisations, universities, institutes and NGOs, including The Smithsonian Institution, The University of Tampa, University of Essex, University of Padova (Italy), Florida International University and the University of The Bahamas.
Our mission is simple: To involve Bahamian students and communities in the data collection process of an Applied Scientific Marine and Environmental Research initiative, that furthers our understanding of ecologically sensitive habitats, ultimately promoting the Conservation of Biodiversity, through Education and Outreach in The Bahamas.
Turning 40 allowed this introspection, and I am lucky, of course, but I have worked hard, and some that knew me from Princethorpe might have said this whole journey would have been impossible. I hope others can find inspiration from this, by learning that anything really IS achievable if you back yourself and work your arse off. Personally? I am obsessed with cricket, love drinking beer, keep fit and active, have around 60% of my body tattooed, grew my hair out after shaving it for 22 years (starting at Princethorpe and immediately being challenged by Father Whelan), have a huge red beard and have turned into a bit of an old hippy who is deeply content in life. I get to swim in the warm, tranquil, tropical waters every day, teach young people the value of these resources, travel extensively for work, and dictate my own hours.
I was 13 when I started at Princethorpe; Father Sweeney was in his final year, before Father Whelan assumed the head role, and of course I remember Mr Darkes and along with Mr Philpott, Father Terry, Father Mike, Mr Skiffington and Mrs O'Keeffe who were among my favourite 'teachers'/adults. My all-time favourite teacher however, and one who continues to inspire me to this day and is the main motivational reason for me wanting to share my story with you is Moira Weir.
My time at Princethorpe was tumultuous. I was popular, but academically inferior to almost everyone, was bullied a lot during my first year, but formed life-long bonds with people I now consider my brothers; James Ackrill, Chris and Nick Todd among many, I am still very close with. I felt that many teachers considered me disruptive or a bad influence and I am sure thought that I would make nothing of my life. Perhaps that is what motivated me and propelled me to achieve, albeit six years after leaving.
But, among every teacher, every negative relationship, every bad grade, or terrible life decision I made, including my three-week suspension, Moira Weir I felt, always believed in me, or at the very least believed I had something in me that was worth her time. I adored her, and still to this day, get emotional when I think about my classes with her, and how after all these years, I still think of her often and how she continues to motivate me to be the very best educator I can. I remember everything from her classes, still read TS Elliot's The Wasteland from time to time, and remember all of the Shakespeare we studied.
Thank you, Moira for your inspiration, your love and support and above all, your teaching.
If you would like to learn more about Owen’s work or get involved in his mission at the Centre for Ocean Research and Education click here.