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. Sandra is a PhD candidate in the Xenopoulos Aquatic Ecology Lab, Canada. In this podcast, we sit down to discuss being an ‘aFISHionado’, growing up as a global citizen of the world, the need to explore and consider the great ecological research coming out of the African continent, and how to go about creating a fairer and more diverse ecosystem in ecology and academia.
Check out Sandra’s website to stay up-to-date with her journey and research.
Frank: Today I am very delighted to share this special BES podcast episode with our listeners—this episode is being released as part of the British Ecological Society’s Black History Month blog series initiative. The purpose of this is to provide a platform for black ecologists, and to showcase the fantastic work and research that they are doing. On that note, I am delighted to welcome Sandra Klemet-N’Guessan to today’s podcast. Sandra is a PhD candidate in the Xenopoulos Aquatic Ecology Lab, Trent University, Ontario, Canada. Her study focus is on the role that aquatic animals play in the cycling of nutrients in lakes and streams. How are you, Sandra?
Sandra: Hello Frank. I’m very good thanks!
Frank: Wonderful, I’m very delighted to have you with us. Thank you for taking the time. To kick things off, let’s start with introductions. Who are you, where are you from, and what are your research interests?
Sandra: My name is Sandra Klemet-N’Guessan. I am a PhD candidate in the Xenopoulos Lab at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. I am originally from multiple places—my Dad is from Côte d’Ivoire and my Mum is from Tunisia and France. I grew up in different countries—mostly in Africa— and then in North America. I’ve been really fortunate to have travelled a lot growing up. I guess I would consider myself to be a global citizen.
Frank: That’s fantastic! Wow, Côte d’Ivoire and Tunisia?
Sandra: Mainly Côte d’Ivoire, Tunisia, and France.
Frank: Amazing! Do you visit those places a lot and spend time there?
Sandra: I’m actually going to France next week, so that is very exciting—I haven’t been back there in six years! Côte d’Ivoire is the country I visit most often—every two years usually—and I haven’t been back to Tunisia for around six years. I’m hoping to be there at some point next year!
Frank: Being the global citizen that you are, would you say that growing up in all of these amazing places had an impact on your desire to become an ecologist? Did you find it inspiring?
Sandra: First of all it exposed me to very different ecosystems! In Côte d’Ivoire, there are different ecosystems if you go from south to north. In the south, you have the typical tropical rainforest-type ecosystems seen in Sub-Saharan Africa; but, there are also more arid/savannah-like types of ecosystems in the north. In Tunisia, it’s a temperate ecosystem which is close to the water, but then you also have the desert. Another place I lived in was Kenya, and in Kenya I really got to see the ‘real savannah’ and all the different wildlife there. All of this definitely shaped my interest in nature. I was very fortunate to spend a lot of time in nature and take a lot of hikes. I’ve always been very curious, but, more importantly, I’ve always felt very comfortable and at peace when in nature. I suppose growing up next to water—the Atlantic Ocean in Côte d’Ivoire, and the Mediterranean Sea in Tunisia—has resulted in me being very exposed to water and fish—particularly with eating fish! Swimming in these immense bodies of water definitely spiked my curiosity. It made me wonder about what is happening across all of the different depths.
Frank: And that is what brought you on to nutrient cycling in lakes and streams?
Sandra: Eventually! I wasn’t exactly thinking about nutrients at that point in my life! However, as I said, I was always interested in fish. They’re very cool to look at when swimming and doing their thing. Through my studies in my undergrad—both in courses and different research experiences with fish—it was confirmed to me that doing work with fish was, firstly, fun! And secondly, I was really fascinated with the ideas of cycles, especially in ecology—how everything is related and interconnected. This, to some extent, relates to my own personal experience of growing up in different places with a wide range of diversity, underneath the overarching connectivity of things. We all can relate through values and our ‘human-ness’, and I just wanted to study that in an ecological context!
Frank: Amazing. So I have to ask now, what’s your favourite fish?
Sandra: That’s a very difficult question. I feel a bit of impostor syndrome with fish because, especially in Canada, you have a lot of people who grew up fishing meaning they really know their fish! I’ve only really fished for science, so I’m not a huge expert; however, here in Canada, there are fish that are really pretty. Two come to mind. Pumpkin seed fish and trouts—including brown trout—are both really close to my heart. I’ve also had the chance to do field work in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean, and there, of course, all the fish are just so pretty. All of them would be my favourite!
Frank: Well I don’t detect any impostor syndrome in your answer! In fact, I’m going say that you’re definitely an ‘aFISHionado’, and that is very much pun intended.
I’d like to ask about what research you are working on now? Can you delve into the specifics of anything you’re up to at the moment?
Sandra: As you’ve mentioned, I’m really focusing on the role that animals play in the cycling of nutrients in all of my thesis chapters, and even in some of my side projects! Essentially, I look at the nutrient content of their urine and relate it to different factors. These can be environmental—dissolved organic matter, both in its concentration and composition—or I relate it to their taxonomic classifications—what species are we looking at—and to their trophic position. Additionally, because I am doing this work in lakes and streams, it enables me to have a multi-ecosystem perspective, and, in general, I always work with scales. So, when we estimate nutrient excretion by animals, we look at these things from the individual level, but then you can scale these things up to the population, and then to the community. I sample a variety of species from both the vertebrate and invertebrate taxonomic worlds. I really like that multi-scale approach.
Frank: Thank you for that. Something that we always want to ask is whether there’s anything you’re looking for? This is your chance to speak to our listeners who are made up of working ecologists! Perhaps collaborators? I know that you are in the Xenopoulos Lab at the moment, so I’m sure you’re all set job-wise, but perhaps help with your research?
Sandra: I’m definitely always happy to collaborate. Something that has been at the forefront of my mind for a long time—since I grew up mostly in Africa—has been to contribute to the research ecosystem there! I have been fortunate to have some research experience in Côte d’Ivoire, and now I have recently collaborated with colleagues in Kenya—who are part of ACARE (the African Centre for African Research and Education)—on a project focussing on the African Great Lakes. I think I’m particularly interested in people who work in that region and I am looking to have more collaborations with them. Potentially, I want to think about research post-PhD. I am hoping to be done in the near future, and I would be interested in doing a post-doc; therefore, anything related to fish, water, and the African region would be of interest to me!
The second thing that I’ve been interested in looking for is knowledge co-production. This is something that is used a lot in Canada with indigenous communities. I’m interested in developing frameworks that are specific to the African context, that use the approach of knowledge co-production—designing questions and projects—to conduct collaborative studies with communities that depend and benefit from a body of water. I want to work with people who have a strong local relationship to, say, a body of water that I am conducting research in.
Frank: Indeed, local community stakeholders, that type of thing. Cool, well I was about to ask where your field work would be, but I suppose you’ve answered that! Moving on to the next part of this episode, I would like to talk about Black History Month. It’s in February in North America, here it’s in October, but the aim is the same: a chance to celebrate black history, heritage, and culture, as well as iconic figures who have made an impact. I wanted to ask you who your black role models are, within ecology and beyond?
Sandra: Within ecology, I would say Wangarĩ Maathai. I learned about her when I was in French school in Kenya. I’m not sure if people know her in the audience, but she was a Kenyan woman who was a trailblazer in tree conservation and more general environmental protection—this was in Kenya post-colonisation, or should I say post-independence. For me, she really represents resilience and she has this approach of really tapping into her ancestral history and relationship with the land in order to design strategies and initiatives that fit well with the local communities and the people of Kenya. She didn’t just use standardised frameworks that had been designed elsewhere.
Frank: Fantastic. And beyond ecology? Is there anyone you’d like to shout out?
Sandra: Definitely! Life goes way beyond ecology. Classically, I am inspired by figures such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. They are symbols of peace and reconciliation, as well as resilience. On a personal note, on my dad’s side, I am Baoulé. In our history, Baoulé people came to be after the Queen, Abla Pokou, left what is now Ghana in order to go to Côte d’Ivoire. As they were on their way, they came across a river that they could not cross. The story goes that Abla Pokou had to sacrifice her only child to be able to make safe passage across the river—aided by hippos assisting the people to cross! As a woman, and given my ancestry, this strong figure of a woman leader, who is compassionate but also tough, and is able to make that kind of sacrifice for her people, is very inspiring.
One that is more contemporary would be Rokhaya Diallo. She is a famous French journalist, film maker, she really has all hats! She is a very strong voice in fighting against any type of systemic racism in France (and beyond). She has been part of several really cool initiatives, including a podcast called ‘Kiffe Ta Race’, which talks about all aspects of discrimination in France. I really admire her for her work.
Frank: Thank you. I wanted to pick up on the initial question about a black ecologist who inspires you. You did come out with an answer quite quickly; however, in other discussions I’ve had, sometimes people struggle to think of any individuals because ecology, historically, has always been very white-dominated. I wanted to ask what you thought about your experiences as a black ecologist? About things that were possible barriers in your journey (if there were any), or, how things could have been different without these barriers? Do you have any experiences in your journey that speaks to what I’m trying to get at?
Sandra: Yes! Maybe not specifically as an ecologist, but more as a person on this identity journey which never ends. As a teenager, I was fortunate to receive a gift which was a book, which I have next to me, called Mes étoiles noires, My black stars, by Lilian Thuram, who used to be a famous soccer player in France, originally from the Caribbean. This book was really powerful for me because it basically talks about black people throughout history who, unbeknownst to us, have made incredible contributions to all spheres—the subtitle is “from Lucy to Barack Obama.” I don’t know if there were any ecologists in that book, but there were definitely scientists. These individuals were leaders, and being able to read about them was a powerful moment which enabled me to feel like black people can contribute wonderful things in all spheres.
The second thing, where I feel I was quite lucky and privileged, was the fact that I grew up in Africa. Specifically, when I was in Sub-Saharan Africa, I was surrounded by people who looked like me, and during my studies I got to meet several Ivorian ecologists and talk with them. I had some mentorship relationships with some of them so these experiences showed that it was possible for someone like me to continue my journey towards becoming an ecologist.
In Côte d’Ivoire’s history, there is a very famous botanist, Laurent Aké Assi, who made a strong impact by using indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants to study the biochemical composition of these plants to really bring this knowledge to a larger scale. Just knowing that this was part of our history made me really drawn to continue on this path.
Frank: So growing up with that visibility, with being able to see people that you recognised as representing someone like you, was helpful?
Sandra: Yes, definitely! Seeing and talking with people like myself was a great advantage. I would also say that with my upbringing, I was fortunate enough to be raised in a way where I was never told that there were limits to the things I could achieve. I was very much encouraged to pursue any of my passions. For me, the sky was the limit!
Frank: Because you talked about ecologists in Côte d’Ivoire, I wanted to unpack that a bit. They will be doing essential research, but the focus always seems to be on research developments in the West. Is there anything thing that stands out to you regarding how to increase the visibility of the work that African researchers are doing? I might be speaking for our listeners, but I imagine the overwhelming majority of ecological research they read will be produce in the West. So there’s all this great stuff going on in African ecology, but it doesn’t receive much attention. Do you have any idea about how to direct people towards this research?
Sandra: I’m not sure if I have any recommendations for this, but I certainly can talk about the barriers to making African ecologists visible. This is a topic that is very dear to my heart. Indeed, there is a lot of cool and important impactful research done in Africa, but not many people know about it because, for some reason, we’re not really a part (or invited/encouraged) in that global scientific sphere. There’s many reasons for that. First of all is the financial barrier—I’m thinking of all of these paywalls for journals, or the high costs for registration to conferences and the visa issues that some ecologists may experience. Also, how costly it would be just to get to a conference. The fact that a lot of these conferences happen in the West. They should happen a lot more frequently in the Global South.
The second thing, especially with regards to Côte d’Ivoire— a francophone country—is language barriers. We speak French, and, unfortunately or fortunately, I don’t know, English is the lingua franca for research. That’s a larger conversation that goes beyond Africa, but, in general, the fact that research is done in English really poses a barrier to all the people who speak so many different languages. These people have to pay the extra cost of learning the language at an academic level and perform at the ‘level’ that is required if you want to be ‘successful’ in academia and research. That’s a big problem. People who have challenges overcoming language barriers, or have more troubles in publishing with journals that are widely read and well known, end up struggling to get visibility for their work. For me, it’s important to think carefully about all of these costs, and we must change these barriers. We must rethink the languages that we use in research. This can be overcome by publishing abstracts in different languages, or by providing more assistance for people that don’t speak English; however, the solution should not involve the authors incurring the cost of paying editors or translators to make their work accessible. These services could be provided by societies like the British Ecological Society. There are certainly options.
Additionally, I think things like this blog series for UK Black History Month are important. I guess diversifying our perspectives and being acutely aware that research is not only conducted in the West. We should be going out to different places and reaching out to local people and groups and trying to lean on their experience and perspective.
Frank: Thank you for answering that. We could certainly go on, but there’s only so much time! Just before we wrap up, I’d like to ask you if you’d like to give a shout out to any peers, or to people who have helped you along the way? Anyone you can think of that has contributed to forming you as a person?
Sandra: Absolutely! Of course, the shout out would go beyond people who are black because I don’t only operate in a black world. There are a lot of people who have been helpful from a whole variety of backgrounds. I’d like to shout out all of my mentors. My current supervisor has been a real champion for me and for all the extracurricular activities that I’ve been part of—shout out to Maggie Xenopoulos! Shout out to my previous supervisor, Anna Hargreaves! There are a lot of female role models that I have had as I’ve been going through my studies. I’ve been very fortunate as I’ve just seen women all over! Being a female scientist has not been an issue for me in that sense. Specifically, for black ecologists, one of my mentors, who is such a supportive and wonderful person, is Swanne Gordon, a professor in the US. I would also like to shout out to an aunty mentor—Anick Tahiri—who is a professor in Côte d’Ivoire. I’d like to shout out to researchers at ACARE—they really aim at protecting and researching African Great Lakes, so shout out to: Kevin Obiero, Zeph Ajode, Alfred Achieng. I’d also like to shout to the African Women In Science programme. All of these women who participate in that programme are really going to change the face of ecological research in Africa.
Frank: It’s so great to hear all these different names and projects. It really does go to show that the answer to these questions are right before us. Just to finish up, the theme for this year’s UK Black History Month is Time For Action: Change Not Words. Is there anything you’d like to say on that theme, from your own experience or other experiences that you know of? I suppose we could frame it ecologically: what is the change that needs to happen in ecology? If you want to take on the mantle of responding on behalf of wider society, I would more than welcome that, but let’s stick to ecology for the moment. Time For Change: Action Not Words?
Sandra: It’s a very tough question. I certainly don’t have all of the answers; however, one thing I feel, which has been a big focus in the past few years, is the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion. It’s not just about diversity based on the colour of our skin, but also cultural, linguistic, gender, and even experiential diversity. I think keeping our eyes open to things outside of our immediate perspective is important. We must be asking questions and seeking recommendations from a wide array of people and groups. We must move and travel to places unfamiliar to us to see what’s happening out there.
Frank: Just to finish up, there’s something that someone said in a blogpost for our blog series that bears repeating. Nasiphi Bitani summarises it very nicely where she talks about how essential it is for the functionality of systems to have diversity. We, as humans, are not the exceptions to the rule. It rings true in every single facet of life. I entirely agree with opening our minds to different opinions and different people from backgrounds that are different to ours. This is essential for achieving a world with equity and diversity.
Sandra: I’d like to just add one more thing! Another thing that is important to think about is how Western science as an academic system was built. We must consider the work culture and the expectations behind it. Work is being done to evaluate metrics that are supposed to indicate ‘success’, and that has direct impact on the ability of people to also access these fields, but my point goes beyond success for all of us. In terms of our mental health and our ability to just be humans, we must cultivate a more compassionate outlook to the way that we conduct our lives in academia and ecology. This would be helpful in making things better.
Frank: Fantastic. “Cultivating” is a fantastic word which is very appropriate to summarise what we have been discussing. I just want to thank you for your time today. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our discussion. Thank you, from me and the listeners!
Sandra: My pleasure! Thank you Frank and everybody out there listening.