For Black History Month, the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. The theme for UK Black History Month this year is Time for Change: Action Not Words. Thobeka Gumede – a PhD researcher at Centre for Functional Biodiversity, School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa – shares her story below.
How did you get into ecology?
My name is Thobeka Gumede and my main research interests are Nature conservation, Avian communities, and Habitat fragmentation. At the beginning of my career – and having grown up in rural areas and underprivileged communities – I didn’t know anything about even the word “ecology,” to be honest. My interest was just in general science and in high school I was told that because I am a black woman – and good at science – it would be easier for me to get a job if I chose a science-specific subject to study. Therefore, because my dream was to improve my family’s lives, I thought doing science would be our ticket (me and my family) to a better living.
Even though I would not say being black woman in science has given me better opportunities, it certainly has taught me to work harder to achieve anything success in my career. Following this, I applied for an Environmental Science degree which consisted of biological and environmental studies. That is when my understanding started to develop and I realized that I wanted to specialize and work in ecology. I changed my degree to ecological science during my second year at University because I realized I had a passion for conservation of biodiversity; furthermore, the modules in ecology were more interesting so I decided to focus on ecology, and I can proudly say that I have never looked back.
Working as an ecologist offers a varied career with opportunities to interact with both fascinating species and people. In my experience, ecologists tend to be positive, outgoing people who wouldn’t let spending all day out in the rain or getting their hair stuck in brambles get them down! This is certainly not the career for you if you are afraid of getting wet and muddy, but I must say that visiting beautiful areas and working in the fresh air certainly makes the mud worth it.
What are you researching/working on right now?
My primary research interests are broadly centred on understanding the ecology of human-dominated landscapes. Some specific interests include aspects of biology, habitat utilization, and occupancy of organisms in fragmented landscapes, ecological restoration, synergism between forest avian communities, and habitat fragmentation. My current work is on multidisciplinary research, focusing primarily on the links between biodiversity, fragmentation, and functional diversity in grasslands avian communities.
I am open to making new friendships from different parts of the world and to collaborating with other ecologists in projects. Furthermore, I am currently actively looking for a permanent job. Do not hesitate to contact me if my academic profile and research interests crossover with yours!
Who are your role models – within ecology and beyond?
Honestly, when I started study ecology, I did not have any black role models in the field because I was not exposed to black women/men doing ecology. However, my late uneducated grandmother really cared about the environment and I started learning small things about nature conservation from her – at that time, I had no understanding about the sustainable use of resources and conservation of nature.
Furthermore, as I progressed in my career, I met amazing people (Dr. Vuyisile Thabethe, Dr. Sindiso Chamane-Nkuna, Dr. Manqoba Zungu) who really inspired me with what they have achieved in their careers. In turn, this has provided strong assurances that my dream of becoming an ecologist is valid. Additionally, my supervisor Prof. Colleen Downs – even though she is not black – actually made it possible for me to become who I wanted to be in my career by giving me the opportunity by supervising me and provided funding for me to further my studies.
Lastly, I want to give a massive shout out to all the black ecologist out there working hard to prove themselves. We see you! Furthermore, a special shout out to all black Ecologist from Downs Laboratory at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg Campus.