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. In this very special podcast episode, British Ecological Society Journals podcast is collaborating with Anne Chisa, host of The Root Of The Science Podcast, to produce a panel discussion for Black History Month 2022! Do follow their Twitter account and support Anne however you can! In this podcast, we discuss the journeys of our guests, talk through the challenges that black ecologists (and scientists) face, and look at actions that can be taken to foster a more diverse and inclusive academic landscape.
Frank: Today I am very delighted to share a first of its kind, special BES podcast episode which is part of our UK Black History Month blog series initiative. This episode is a collaborative project between the Root of Science & British Ecological Society Journals podcast platforms. It is with great pleasure that I can reveal that today’s podcast will be a panel discussion with 3 black ecologists. However, before I formally introduce and welcome our esteemed guests, I want to give a brief introduction to the platform that the BES is collaborating with today. The Root of Science podcast is hosted by Anne Chisa, who is doing wonderful work showcasing the work of Black researchers in STEM. I want to thank Anne for her contributions, both to this episode, and in her work showcasing black researchers around the world. Anne’s podcast can be found at https://rootofthesciencepodcast.buzzsprout.com/, and their twitter handle is @RootofSciPod. Please do check out her podcast and support it in any way that you can!
As anyone who has followed this BES series will know—the purpose of our 2022 Black History Month initiative is to provide a platform for black ecologists, and to showcase the fantastic work and research that they are doing. Therefore, I am honoured to welcome our guests for the panel today. On the panel, we have Daniel Pauly, Nasiphi Bitani, and Mthokozisi (Mtho) Moyo.
Daniel Pauly is a University Killam Professor—which, if I’ve been informed correctly, is the highest honour that the University of British Columbia can confer on a member of faculty—at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries & Department of Zoology. Daniel has authored or co-authored over 1000 scientific articles, book chapters and shorter contributions, and authored, or (co-)edited about 30 books and reports.
Nasiphi Bitani is an early career, PhD researcher from the Centre for Functional Biodiversity, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Nasiphi’s current research focuses on the Mistbelt indigenous forests of the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Midlands in South Africa.
Mthokozisi Moyo is an early career researcher at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. Mthokozisi’s research focus is currently on several aspects of seasonality, such as functional traits and adaptations associated with rainfall seasonality in Africa, Ecological and climatological approaches to defining rainfall seasonality, and more.
Anne: Thanks Frank! It is an honour to host this panel with our amazing guests. I am so excited for this important and timely conversation. To get things started, we have 3 amazing people on the panel who are doing great work in ecology. However, I think it’s important for us to set the tone and understand how our panellists got to where they are. I want to ask you all, was science something that you wanted to do from the get-go? I’m going to start with Daniel, because you are further ahead in your career, and then we will go to Nasiphi, and finally Mtho.
Daniel: I was born in Paris in 1946, which seems like millions of years ago! My father was an African-American soldier and my mother was a French woman. I grew up in a French-speaking part of Switzerland which was quite difficult. At 17, I moved to Germany and acquired A-levels by enrolling on night courses from 5–9pm, 5 days a week, for 4 years. I then went to university when I was 23, again in Germany. By that time, I had decided that I was going to live in a country in the Global South—not because I was personally discriminated against (I wasn’t really ever), but because I was always questioning my identity… Where do I belong? Growing up in Europe speaking French, German, and, later, Spanish, I felt I belonged in Europe; however, because I was a bit brown, I was viewed as a foreigner everywhere I went. Therefore, I thought I might as well emigrate to a country in the Global South. I had done the fieldwork for my thesis in Ghana, and found that I could live very happily among Ghanaians.
I studied science not because I was particularly science-oriented, but because I thought I would learn something like Agronomy which would be useful for working in a developing country. I did start with Agronomy, but I changed within one semester because the place was full of Nazis… Real Nazis—because they were still around in Germany in 1969. From there, I went on to study Fishery Science. After my Master’s, I worked for two years in Indonesia and then came back to do a PhD. I then went to work in the Philippines (for 20 years!) which represented a dream realised—to work in the Indo-Pacific Tropical Belt. All my life, I have been teaching and researching the fisheries of the entire world. I’ve been lucky to teach in Africa, South America, Oceania—I’ve always enjoyed being very international, especially before I came to UBC. Even after joining UBC, I continue to research fisheries globally. In my field, I’m rather a big shark in a small pond—fisheries sciences is quite a small thing, but nonetheless, I am a big shark in the field!
Anne: Thank you so much for that journey! We can’t wait to hear more. Over to you, Nasiphi, what is your story? What made you want to become a scientist?
Nasiphi: For me, I always knew that I wanted to do something in the sciences, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. Growing up, I was always good at maths, so I was interested in doing something that was mathsy. In grade 8, I went to a technical high school which taught a lot of civic technology in order to push us towards engineering. So, when I had to choose my majors in grade 10, I initially wanted to do engineering. I was fortunate enough to be part of a program that was covered by Engen—an oil refinery company—which offered extra maths and science tutoring. The goal behind this was to influence us to get into STEM. However, when I got into grade 12, I joined an environmental club where we went on an excursion centred on cleaning the oceans. That was when one of the ladies giving a talk—an environmental scientist—introduced me to the idea of doing environmental science! From this point onwards, I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I then went on to do environmental science in my undergrad, which then led me to ecology. I was led to ecology because the degree that I was doing was a double major between ecology and environmental science, with ecology only factoring in during my second year. I then decided that after completing my BSC, I would then just pursue ecology!
Anne: Fantastic! Thank you, Nasiphi. Mtho, what is your genesis? How did you end up in science?
Mtho: Honestly, I ended up here by accident! I did always want to do science, but I was never sure which science to choose. When I was younger, I was very good at maths and science; however, when I got to varsity, I was still not exactly sure what I wanted to do. Therefore, I just enrolled for a Science Bachelor which is just a general degree where you can basically build from lots of different subjects. I took chemistry, physics, maths, and biology—I tried to cover all my bases! But, the two that interested me mostly were chemistry and biology (the one I got very good marks in!). Initially, I wanted to do environmental chemistry because I thought it was a fitting combination; however, I actually failed my second year in chemistry, which then led me to focus specifically on environmental science. In my Honour’s year, I met my supervisor, Professor Bob Scholes, who actually got me interested in ecology. He’s a big shot scientist who taught me basically everything I know about ecology. He played a big part in increasing my interest in this field. At a time when I was looking to try and find my place in the world, I felt at home after working with him.
Anne: It seems like the common thread with everyone here is that you all got into ecology a bit accidentally? With that in mind, I’d like to know where you have all ended up? Could you tell us more about your specific research interests? I’m sure these have also evolved over time! Daniel?
Daniel: Fisheries are mainly marine, but they are also found in freshwater. Fisheries have to be managed because you want to know how much you can catch, keeping in mind next year’s catch. Think of it like wanting to be able to see the forest for the trees! You have to have mathematical models that you can use to calculate numbers of fish. Most mathematical models for this type of thing have been developed in Europe and North America for fish that you can determine the age of. However, in the tropics, the fish don’t necessarily have rings that allow you to determine their age; therefore, the theory/model had to be modified. This is what I began doing in the 1980s—to modify our theories and models around fishing so that it could be applied in the tropics. I have published lots of stuff about this! That’s the first part of my work.
On the other hand, I have grown knowledgeable about the economics and drivers of fishing—subsidies, huge demand (in some countries), etc. I became quite vehement about the things that needed to be fixed. My biography, which was recently published, has me down as a whistleblower! I am, supposedly, the ocean whistleblower. Anyway, my personal interests in the late phase of my life and work is going back to what I did for my dissertation—the difficulties fish have pertaining to extraction of oxygen in water. They are very sensitive to lack of oxygen (deoxygenation) and temperature increase. This was largely ignored 40 years ago, but with global warming this is now very pertinent. Therefore, the work that I have done on this is getting lots of attention. I am mainly now working on that. The last point I want to make is that I consider science’s main purpose to be simplification. I try to find theories and explanations that simplify things. To me, science is not a collection of phenomena, but rather a set of explanations. You have to produce explanations rather than describe phenomena. Science functions on the basis of evidence, and it does not matter whoever brings the evidence forward. It doesn’t matter what race or gender the argument comes from. That is the reason why science allows us, when we are allowed in, to blossom and to be, as opposed to certain fields where what you are, or what you are supposed to be, determines forever what you can achieve. In that sense, science is very liberating.
Anne: That is absolutely true. I personally loved what you said about how science should be about simplification. We are now above the ocean, Nasiphi, please tell us about your research! What is it that you do for your PhD and what would you like to study in the future?
Nasiphi: For my PhD, I am currently focussing on the Mistbelt Forest in the midlands of South Africa. I am interested, specifically, in bird communities. In the past, this forest has been heavily logged which has changed its structure and composition. As we all know, birds are vital for ecological systems—they massively help to pollinate our plants! Therefore, I am looking at how birds are responding to these changes. With that in mind, I am focussing on the endangered Cape Parrot. I am looking at which forest patches this bird occupies and what makes these patches special. This is important because we have less than 2,000 individuals left in the wild. Therefore, by knowing the structural and compositional specifics of these patches, which are vital for the survival of these birds, we can then develop and target our conservation efforts.
Anne: Thank you, Nasiphi! Very interesting research and we wish you all of the best with the rest of your PhD. Mtho, give us an overview on what you are currently working on please!
Mtho: I work on several aspects of seasonality. It started off as a very small project that has just grown and grown! The main focus is on the functional traits and adaptations associated with rainfall seasonality in Africa. What traits do plants and animals have to have in order to survive in a seasonal environment. We know that every single year, there’s a time when there’s a lot of rain, and there’s a dry season. So we want to ask questions about what strategies organisms have to deal with lengthy dry seasons. For example, some trees drop their leaves while others manage to keep their leaves throughout a dry period. Or, we get animals that migrate to find food during the dry season. These are the types of traits that I am looking at. We have done a review, and also tried to classify all of those traits into lots of different categories. The other thing that we are also looking at is how to actually define what rainfall seasonality is. If you look at all of the papers published on the subject, a lot of people use different definitions for what rainfall seasonality is. I want to take all of those definitions and put them all into one place. I hope that doing this will allow us to better measure seasonality traits. Furthermore, the measure of seasonality that one uses depends on the application, so sometimes if you are looking at things from a plant perspective, you’ll find that growth rate is a better measure of seasonality because it takes account the type of soil that the plant is found. However, in other instances, when you are looking at annual rainfall distribution, you have to use different measures. We are also looking at how seasonality can affect community composition. For instance, we are looking at whether we have specific plants found in seasonal environments in Southern Africa. Another objective is to see whether the distribution of mixed feeders are also comparable to some of the seasonality maps that we are producing. That’s my research in a nutshell!
Anne: Thanks Mtho! Sounds like very important work and we wish you all the best as you round up your PhD. We’ve got very diverse research interests here! This has set the tone for why we have come together today. This is for Black History Month, and we want to amplify the voices of black ecologists and showcase the amazing work that you are doing. However, we all know that there is a lack of representation in this field. Nasiphi, I’m sure this is doubly true because not only are you black, but you are also female. Can you talk to us about some of your experiences regarding lack of representation as a female and black ecologist?
Nasiphi: When I started my MSC, I would say that I was fortunate enough to be working in a very diverse lab. It’s very well balanced in terms of gender and race, so I never really felt out of place. However, the lack of representation was made really apparent to me when I started going to conferences. At the beginning of 2020, I attended an international conference. I happened to be 1 of 3 black students at the conference. That was an eye-opening moment. Even in terms of African representation, all 3 African attendees came from my lab! This is when I realised that there was a real lack of representation in ecology. However, I’m glad to say that on a day-to-day basis, I fortunately get to experience an ideal level of representation.
Anne: It’s really interesting that when you are in South Africa, you wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss, but when you zoomed out and saw the international landscape, that’s when the lack of representation became really apparent. Would anyone like to add further on this? Maybe Daniel?
Daniel: What I can say is that there is a problem at the institutional level. Where I work is a graduate institute, so we can choose students who will do Master’s and PhD’s. The problem is that we don’t get black students applying! That’s the main issue. Two years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement exploded, lots of people consulted with me and others at my university about what we could do to support the movement. The problem was that black students in North America, apparently, get discouraged at earlier stages of their lives from going into ecological-type degrees. The bright students that have family backgrounds that enable them to attend universities are often driven towards medicine and law. I also noticed this trend when I was in South Africa. The first student from a given family that could go to university would be pushed to become a doctor or lawyer. I imagine that this is because these subjects are attractive to families that do not come from privileged backgrounds – they are conventionally seen as the barometer for success. Scientists, on the other hand, earn a modest salary and they can’t necessarily look after a large family. There’s little encouragement in these situations to go into the sciences. I think it only makes sense to students as a career option if your family come from a privileged background. This is a major problem for recruiting future black ecologists. The universities in North America are now open to black students, which has not historically been the case, but there are very few black students who are able to run the gauntlet to study something like ecology at undergraduate level.
Anne: You’ve touched on a very important topic. Mtho, I’d like to bring you in here. So it seems like black students are not necessarily even applying for ecology courses. Do you think that rings true here in South Africa? And also, what sort of pressure does that put on the people who do choose this path?
Mtho: From my perspective, I would say that another reason why people don’t apply for ecology is because they don’t know much about it from the off! For most of us, we are probably the first generation to go to university. I was lucky enough that my parents had actually gone to university before me, so they could provide some information. However, for a lot of my peers, they are the first generation. For these students, it can be a lot to try to figure out what’s going on and what to do. Things like law, accounting, and medicine are the most accessible careers because they are what we see on TV every day. You know that you can get a nice salary out of these careers, so everyone is driven towards that. When it comes to science, most people don’t even know the wide variety of careers that sciences can offer. Another thing is that when you get into these careers, it can be hard, due to lack of representation or information, to feel that you belong in these particular fields. That is something that all of us have to try to navigate these challenges. It’s a long and arduous journey towards becoming a scientist.
Anne: That’s so true. With that being said, we are able to recognise these problems. We have all mentioned what the problems are, so how do we take action so that more people get into the sciences. Let’s start there, and then we can move on to how to get people into ecology. I’d like to start with Daniel. In your years of experience, what actions can we take to rectify these problems?
Daniel: I think that with us staring down the barrel of dealing with global warming for decades, perhaps even centuries, the role of ecology will be vital. In many countries, our survival is hanging on by a thread. Agriculture and fishing is going to become very difficult. Ecology will very much have to be at the centre of our planning in life. Furthermore, if you want to access a European research fund, there has to be a balance between the North and South of Europe. Similarly, after South Africa had the vote to abolish apartheid, there was a big push to create a collaboration between historically black institutions and white institutions. I was part of a small group (3 people) that reviewed collaboration projects from a funding agency that evaluated projects for their balance. Some of these institutions made a real effort to involve everyone, but most of the institutions did not make much effort. They would just basically signal that they would be involved, but they put no effort into thinking about or planning how this would work and what effective collaboration actually means. We went through 100 applications, and it was so easy to see which institutions were not serious about collaboration. My point is that it is necessary and vital for us to have more ecology in our lives, simply because we are going to have big trouble with our natural systems soon. This will and must force collaboration between all institutions. This collaboration will need to be real, rather than on paper. It is easy to distinguish when collaboration is unfairly weighted, especially with funding issues. Via fair distribution of funds, we can force collaboration between groups to solve problems.
Anne: Thank you, Daniel. So we’ve spoken on the institutional level. Nasiphi, on a personal level, can you speak about what action we can take to solve some of these problems, especially with your vantage point as an early-career researcher? What could have been helpful for you for getting into ecology?
Nasiphi: The most important thing is knowledge. A lot of us don’t know the opportunities that are out there. We don’t know the options we have and the many careers that are available for us. Whenever I talk to undergraduates about what I’m currently doing, they always seem quite shocked. They didn’t even realise that you can get paid to do the work that I do! That is why knowledge is vital. Pre-COVID, we used to do lab outreach community projects where we’d go to under-privileged schools to enlighten children about the opportunities that were available to them. I remember even high school teachers weren’t aware about options—they’d often ask “what is ecology?” even when they were teaching grade 12 biology! People like myself that are already within the space should be more vocal and we should be sharing more information about how prospective students can carve a career out of ecology.
Anne: That’s absolutely correct! It’s so important to have conversations that inform people so that they are aware of the opportunities. Mtho, would you like to add anything further?
Mtho: I’d like to add another thing that could effect change! More funding should be available for students that want to study the sciences. I know a lot of people that want to continue to do their Master’s or PhD’s, but most of them are the first people to go to university in their families meaning that they are under a lot of pressure to provide and support their families as quickly as possible. This makes studying very difficult if they can’t afford to continue studying. I know a lot of people who look after their families with the money that they receive for funding. This needs to change. Another thing that is important is mentorship! If you don’t have good mentors, it will be a big challenge. I had a great professor who was able to guide me in my work, but if I didn’t meet him, I don’t think I’d be in this conversation right now. We need strong role models for students to look up to and seek guidance from.
Anne: Absolutely, mentorship is so important. Having support from someone who is further ahead of you is so vital. I know your supervisor played a very huge role in your journey. I know that you also mentioned that international collaborations are opportunities worth pursuing. I’m going to throw this back to you, Mtho. You spoke about working with various different people internationally. How has that been for you? Tell us about the positives as well as the negatives in your experience.
Mtho: Working with international collaborators has been a very interesting experience. At first, you don’t know who they are so you need someone who can connect all of you. That’s the first negative—accessibility is an issue! It’s who you know, which is definitely a challenge. Not everyone will have a well-known and well-connected supervisor. That’s probably the biggest challenge, actually. Another challenge is the fact that international collaborators sometimes don’t trust us. They expect that they will be doing the majority of the work and think of themselves as the experts, which makes the collaborative aspect of sharing information difficult. We should be all helping each other. Sometimes, it can feel slightly more one-sided if a group feels that they are the authority on a certain topic. We must understand that everyone has knowledge to share. On the positives, it is a very helpful and affirming experience. You can gain access to new networks, or funding (which is probably my main challenge). These international bodies have access to more funding than any of our African institutions can access. It’s also helpful to gain access to new viewpoints. Working internationally opens you up to different experiences and perspectives. Access to networks allows you to work with new groups and continue to gain/develop relationships.
Anne: Thank you, Mtho. I’d like to bring Daniel in. You have a lot of experience in this field so, given these challenges that Mtho and Nasiphi are speaking about, how have you overcome some of the challenges that we have spoken about? We are looking for advice from someone who has already walked this path.
Daniel: There is no nut that you cannot crack if you just keep working on it! It sounds trite, but you have to work hard, usually on the same topic for a while. Lots of people will tell you that changing is good from time to time because you become stale if you work on the same thing. However, my advice to young researchers is to stay with a certain problem and publish a number of papers before you should move. If you go from one problem to the next too early, you will not be recognised by anybody as an expert in a given field. You should choose a nice problem, and then you BANG on it for 10 years or so and publish a dozen papers on it. You are then an expert or something, and you can move on to something else using your acquired knowledge and network. That is what I would advise. Furthermore, one can statistically demonstrate discrimination against certain names (non-European names, usually) in publications. For example, I had a student with a long Arabic name and we got rejected 3 or 4 times with an excellent paper. That eventually ended up in a good journal, but I cannot tell whether this was because of the name or not, but the point is that you cannot give up too early. We can take the example of Chinese publications. For a long time, China was viewed as putting out weak research and science; however, they are now leading several fields in science. They are totally leading certain fields! There is no reason why African scientists cannot become leading, in 20 years, in certain areas of ecology. The field is there, the animals are there, the plants are there. You have to stick to it and crack these nuts by banging these nuts repeatedly until they open!
Anne: Nasiphi, this next question is for you. Daniel has spoken about how to establish yourself. You are at the beginning of your career. It is going to take a while, and sometimes it gets really difficult to be motivated and continue to stick through your research problem. With that said, how do you keep your momentum? You’ve been doing this for nearly 10 years, so how do you keep motivated so that you can become an expert in your field?
Nasiphi: Currently, if I feel exhausted or non-productive I just take time off! I really enjoy my time-off and I then come back rejuvenated and ready to work. I really encourage others to take breaks. I’m very fortunate to be in such a supportive space with a lot of peers in different stages that can share in the highs and lows. Even if it feels like you’re not getting anywhere, it’s important to remember that taking breaks is an important part of getting to where you need to be. It is a lot, but I’m pushing through!
Anne: I’m sure the end of anything, particularly a PhD is so hard! Mtho, you are also in the same space. How do you stay motivated?
Mtho: Having a very supportive lab which celebrates every little win is vital. Things are completed in small stages so having people around you who can celebrate these achievements is very important. I am also motivated by seeing people in my age bracket who are doing very well! I’m very grateful for social media which has opened up a whole new world of young academics who are going through the same changes. It is important to recognise that we are all in the same boat and that support is out there. There will always be people that will cheer you on as you achieve things in your work.
Anne: Support is so important! Whether it is in your lab, or even on social media. We’ve had such a great conversation today, and I’ve loved how you’ve all shared your unique journeys. It’s been great to hear about your research interests, and some of the commonalities as well as differences in your struggles. As we wrap up, could we get some advice for the listeners—I call these golden nuggets!
Daniel: I think that we all have to learn that scientists are not weird nerds that conduct work that is irrelevant! Scientists are doing things that have to be considered and viewed. We do not want civilisation as know it to end. We are in a process of messing up the earth’s ecosystems to the extent that life on earth will become so difficult. The only way to fix that is to listen to the science about how we can make things work. If we don’t do that, we will be in big trouble. Scientists are to be listened to, and therefore have to be promoted. We need all the science we can get! That means all genders and ethnicities contributing—we need as much brainpower as possible devoted to overcoming these problems.
Anne: Thank you Daniel. Nasiphi, your golden nuggets?
Nasiphi: I would say the things we do, as ecologists, are very important. Not just for us, but for society. Anyone is interested in pursuing sciences, I would say that you should choose a supportive supervisor (if you can)! There are so many opportunities for travel and attending conferences!
Anne: Mtho, your last words for us?
Mtho: I would say that we must keep asking questions! If you keep asking questions, you can get to the answer. That applies to all aspects of life, but none more than science as asking these questions will enable us to understand our world better so that we can solve some of the problems that we face. I’d also say that it’s really important to have a good support system. There are so many people that are willing to support you, you just have to look in the right places!
Anne: Lovely! Wow, so many golden nuggets and words of wisdom! I’m sure the audience is inspired, motivated, and that they have learned something today. Thank you so much to each and every one of you for taking the time to chat with us today for this amazing collaborative episode. I look forward to learning more from people in this field!
If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, why not follow the British Ecological Society Journals’ podcast account!
Additionally, do check out The Root Of The Science Podcast with Anne Chisa where she is doing wonderful work promoting and platforming the work of black researchers in STEM!