Deciphering the history of the world’s oceans

Science, Graduate Studies

- Clare Walton

Zhen Li

Cultural perspectives on ocean science stand out for new doctoral grad

Zhen Li’s optimism and positive attitude are striking. A self-described mature student, Zhen earned both her bachelor and master’s of science degrees in China before relocating to Victoria to pursue a PhD at the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences.

With a research focus on paleoceanography—studying the oceans’ history to understand its physical, chemical and biological makeup—Zhen came to the university familiar with the waters of the South China Sea and open to learning more about the Pacific Ocean and its coasts. 

Working for four years in Vera Pospelova’s paleoenvironmental group, Zhen gained a strong understanding of ocean conditions and how the actions of humans influence and accelerate changes to the ocean environment. Learning to put more focus on the relationship between humans and nature represented a big shift in thinking for Zhen, who describes the Chinese relationship to the environment as being more focused on resource extraction and development than on protection and conversation. “Understanding culture differences was a challenge for me when I first arrived in Canada,” says Zhen. “In order to be successful, I needed to understand the different ways Canadians think about nature and how this affects the ways in which they conducted their research.”

Pursuing a doctorate degree is a challenging task for any student but moving to a new country where you don’t speak the language and have to learn the culture is a whole other challenge in itself. In order to thrive in her new home, Zhen familiarized herself with local culture while also committing to her academic work. “You can’t just focus all your energy on your research, otherwise you will become isolated,” she says. “It was just as important to me to do my research on Canada. To read lots about the country’s history, become involved with my community and make the effort to strengthen my English language skills.”

Returning to an academic setting later in life can be scary but Zhen hopes that by sharing her story she can help other students make the decision to pursue their academic goals. “I hope that other students from different cultural backgrounds can see me as a positive example of what is possible if you remain open to new experiences,” says Zhen. “Although there are challenges to completing a degree in a foreign country there are also many rewards as long as you remain confident in yourself.”

During her time at the university Zhen was the recipient of a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) scholarship to support her research. She continues to remain connected to UVic as she pursues a NSERC-supported post-doctoral fellowship at UBC, continuing her palaeoceanographic research into the waters surrounding Vancouver Island. 


In this story

Keywords: convocation, oceans, international

People: Zhen Li

Publication: The Ring

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