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. This post is from Dr. Perpetra Akite a lecturer at Makerere University, Kampala.
I am currently a lecturer in zoology at Makerere University, Kampala. My research is mostly focused on community ecology, entomology, biodiversity, conservation, and ecosystem services especially in national parks, forests and agricultural landscapes. I am particularly interested in how insects respond to their environment and how knowledge about insect ecology can be used in defining the importance of insects in maintaining ecological balance and fostering ecosystem resilience while meeting ever-increasing human needs. My approach to research is geared towards evidence-based management of ecosystems. This includes using species traits to study the importance of critical species and how those traits can be used to predict the ecological interactions between species and particular habitat characteristics, and the broader ecosystem services that arise from biodiversity. But away from the academic field, I am a free-spirited naturalist, with a keen interest in nature photography (see below), citizen science, environmental education and ecotourism.
My journey into ecology started way back at the age of 3 while playing “bodyguard” to my father (R.I.P) when he was out in the gardens in rural northern Uganda. Despite the constant political and environmental instability during my childhood years, I still had a chance to happily go out in nature and appreciate the diversity of life. I strongly believe that this is where my strong interest in life sciences began. We lived in a village setting and it was not unusual to see a great diversity of creatures. I became obsessed with things like insects, snakes, vervet monkeys and grasshoppers amongst many, and they were fairly abundant then. I often share this background of my career with others and the reaction is often that of “wow”. So, the British Ecological Society’s invitation to share with the wider global community is a great honour. Hopefully, sharing my story will allow others, not only BAME friends but people from all backgrounds who may be contemplating a career in ecology to think and rethink again.
My experiences as a Black ecologist and researcher
Personally, it has not been an easy journey to become an ecologist let alone to remain in the field after my Bachelor of Science Degree (Biological) from Makerere University, Uganda. The lack of professional mentors to act as an anchor for professional development, let alone one that would lead me to greater integration with other ecologists, has been grave. As Sir Isaac Newton eminently put it: “If I can see further, it is because I am standing on the shoulders of giants.” In my country, and possibly across many developing countries, there is an obvious lack of these giants. And the few who we have rarely forge close bonds with mentees mostly due to societal prejudice. As such, young ecologists find themselves progressing, if at all, at a pace that most of the time generates a stronger drive to quit, rather than the will to fight on and become better. Thankfully, I have fought on, not only for myself but hopefully for those who will come after me. Whenever I am asked about how I got to where I am today, I am simply lost for answers because the mere mention of my journey seems to put a dent in the desire of these younger people who are considering a career in ecology. However, not all is lost. Over the past few years, I have found platforms (e.g. Lepidopterists’ Society of Africa, Tropical Biology Association, British Ecological Society, British Entomological and Natural History Society, Nature Uganda) and individuals (e.g. Prof. Derek Pomeroy, Prof. Richard Telford, Prof. Vigdis Vandvik, Prof. Helen Roy, Prof. Hugh Rowell, Dr. Robert Kityo, Dr. Rosie Trevelyan, Mr. Sáfián Szabolcs, Dr. Paul Waring) that give me some much-needed anchoring and mentorship. Now I am at the stage of no retreat, no surrender and I hope this drive and passion can help me to build a better foundation for the coming generations of ecologists and that they can find great and friendly shoulders to climb on.
There is nothing more beautiful than being out in nature and carrying out great ecological studies. However, this can come with a great price to pay. This price is even higher for a female ecologist. For example, the conflict between having a career in ecology vs. having a family can be very hard to balance. But for every female ecologist, success is the best revenge. As a woman ecologist, I have fully embraced my sexual identity while living and enjoying my scientific identity. This is not the time to walk away. Rather, this is the moment to stand up to the drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and dealing with all the roadblocks along the path of ecological success. The fruits are all worth the fight. If I were to go back 20 years, would I still consider a career in ecology? My answer is a strong yes, but I would do things a little bit differently.
Using academia to make ecology better
One key thing that would go a long way to boost interest in ecology, and even more especially for females, is the importance of creating programmes that encourage mentorship, support and retention of specialists. The creation of a readily available network of professionals is important as new ecologists can access much-needed support right at an early career stage. Finding myself struggling to learn things that I could have done so over a decade ago is painful in itself, and often demoralising. A good example for me is the great lack of insect taxonomists/para-taxonomists in my country that has almost turned my great interest into a nightmare. As such, people with low motivation simply give up rather than labour to get there. There is an urgent need to make a deliberate effort to reach out to other people who may want to pursue similar careers in ecology, but have limited access to academic platforms.
During my early postgraduate years, I was lucky to have access to a few ecologists (partly non-academics) who constantly encouraged and supported me. I started as a volunteer intern but the experience I gained from this was enough to enable me to earn a scholarship for a Master of Science Degree in Environment and Natural Resources at Makerere University through a DANIDA-funded project (Enhancement of Research Capacity: ENRECA). Regrettably, the university setting in developing countries, but more specifically in Uganda is not structured in a way to help support people from less privileged backgrounds, let alone those with a keen interest in ecology. At an institutional level, it is crucial to have a structural setup to support those from a less privileged background.
Challenges faced by researchers in my country
For the majority of people, carrying out ecological studies within resource-limited institutions is a major challenge. Ecological work is resource-intensive and yet long-term funding is barely available. Because of this, most ecological studies end up being done in piecemeal steps, and yet some things cannot just wait. In recent years, as we try to catch up with the pace of innovation, basic ecology that is the foundation of any good and sustainable bio-innovation has been left behind and is largely overlooked in terms of fund allocation. Most of the time, ecologists feel helpless to make a strong case as policymakers will only accept evidence supported by data to justify any actions. Unfortunately, only fragments of data are available from restricted temporal and spatial scales. Institutional bureaucracy is one key let-down for ecologists in my country. Because of this, quite often ecologists are taunted as anti-development. Coupled with the lack of funds, there is also a lack of equipment and up-to-date laboratory facilities. It is without a doubt that this is playing a big part in the current trends in biodiversity loss observed in my country, as ecologists look around for much-needed support.
Shift in attitudes towards collaboration within the scientific community
There is now more willingness and openness to have joint projects between ecologists from across the board. For example, the recent efforts between local and international ecologists in an attempt to save some critical habitats in my country has brought about a shift in engagement between ecologists irrespective of background, culture and race. Good scientific progress should not be hindered by our differences. Instead, we should always use our diversity to make ecology better. This is happening now through joint training at all levels. It has become fairly easy to make collaborations between ecologists of different races – something that I find remarkable and very noble. I have been recommended or seconded by reputable ecologists from across the globe, solely on the basis of my abilities and nothing to do with my colour. This to me is the future of ecology as no one group can achieve their goals alone.
Looking back in time to look forward
If only I had known that what started as a childhood adventure was a career in the making, I would not have had to spend many years in school procrastinating about becoming a medical doctor. We are in large part a product of what we have been told or made to believe. If only basic biology was not ‘demonised’ as a flat course at university, my country would be generating the very best of ecologists. I personally believe that all ecological instincts set in before the age of 10 and past that, one is simply doing a job rather than living out their passion. In fact, the best ecologist can only be someone who has a passion for it. To keep my drive even today, I keep going back to my younger experiences and that is what every ecologist ought to reflect on. To appreciate ecology, I did not need to travel thousands of miles, but simply look around. Some bright ideas may be coming late but whatever happens, I now consider them pitstops along my long ecological journey. My role is to find the right landmark at every point.