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Professor Colleen Downs Announced as SARChI Chair

2015/09/15 11:15:23 AM

UKZN's Professor Colleen Downs, has been appointed as the South African Research Chair in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KZN and the Eastern Cape.

 Professor Colleen Downs.

 Professor Colleen Downs of the School of Life Sciences in Pietermaritzburg has just been appointed as the South African Research Chair in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KZN and the Eastern Cape.
As part of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor recently announced the appointment of 42 female academics to these positions at public higher education institutions throughout the country. This brings the total number of SARChI Chairs to 197, with almost half now being women. With a rigorous and demanding screening process, the drive to appoint deserving female academics saw more SARChI positions created than were initially planned, thanks to the sheer quantity and quality of the applicants.

At the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), five female academics were awarded this honour in recognition of their excellence in research, teaching and supervision, and as part of an effort to improve the country’s international standing in research and innovation. UKZN was one of only three institutions to be awarded all five of the positions it was allowed to apply for. These positions are also designed to enable these academics to continue and expand their portfolio of contributing to vital local and international knowledge. The Chair positions are awarded for a minimum period of five years and are renewable for 15 years, with the programme giving these academics extra capacity and resources to intensify their research and postgraduate training.
One of UKZN’s new SARChI Chairs is Professor Colleen Downs of the School of Life Sciences in Pietermaritzburg, who has been part of the University since 1994 when she started working with the Science Foundation Programme. Downs is renowned for her work with terrestrial vertebrates which has contributed considerably to conservation activities on the continent. Her research has been featured in numerous forums including BBC Earth. With more than nearly 200 publications in peer reviewed journals to her name, Downs has earned recognition as the top-published female researcher at UKZN and has supervised more than 60 postgraduate students. She is also a reviewer for a wide range of international journals and examines theses for numerous universities in addition to UKZN.

Her research interests are broad and interdisciplinary but focus on the ecology, physiology, behaviour and conservation of terrestrial vertebrates particularly in KZN and the E. Cape. She is interested in how changing land use affects biodiversity and ecosystem health. Some of her work includes understanding the urban ecology of various species and their persistence. She has contributed to the understanding of the relationships between the physiology, behaviour and ecology of a range of southern African terrestrial vertebrates, including Leopard Tortoises, Nile Crocodiles, various bird species and small mammals. Her research on the effects of changing land use and ecosystem health in KwaZulu-Natal has been done with relevance to animals including Cape Parrots, Bushbuck, Oribi, Pelicans, Nile Crocodiles, Fruit Bats, Serval, Genets, Raptors, Hadedas and feral cats.
This research has been vital for conservation endeavours, with one of her most recent achievements being collaborating on the re-classification of the Cape parrot Poicephalus robustus as a distinct species, meaning a great deal for the status of the critically endangered species. Another recent notable study is Downs’ team’s observation of the sleeping habits of Wahlberg’s Epauletted Fruit Bat and how these relate to surface body temperature, revealing important information about the effects of climate change on these bats.

An active lecturer and supervisor, Downs has played an integral role in the development of many of her students who have gone on to achieve great recognition in their fields. Some of her students have been recipients of international conservation awards and recognition for their work with species in Africa.

Downs is the Chair of the Cape Parrot Working Group and for 17 years has contributed to the annual Cape Parrot Big Birding Day, taking her contributions outside the classroom and into society where they are needed by liaising with hundreds of volunteers nationally, producing reports, magazine articles, and giving public presentations. She is currently the Chairperson of the Cape Parrot Working Group based at UKZN. Another vital societal contribution is her work on the importance of science education, a subject she is passionate about which would see the development of strategies to address challenges faced by Life Science students.
In international circles, Downs has presented a plenary at the 2010 Frugivory and Seed Dispersal Symposium in France convened the 2015 conference in South Africa. She was the Scientific Chair of the Pan African Ornithological Congress held in Tanzania in 2012 and was also recently appointed a Fellow of the International Ornithologists’ Union (IOU).

A keen birder, Downs has found innovative ways of incorporating her passions into her work, and has inspired her many students to do the same; half of her postgraduate students have completed research focused on birdlife. Currently most of her students are researching aspects of the effects of changing land use on biodiversity. This kind of research is broad, says Downs, and allows for an interdisciplinary scope.
She looks forward to the added capacity and resources that will come with the SARChI Chair position as she continues to forge a path in the area she is passionate about, and which needs increased attention from scientists and society at large.

Christine Cuénod

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