Professor Colleen Downs

Professor Colleen Downs, South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, was honoured in the 2017 National Women in Science Awards (WISA), given by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

Downs was announced as second runner up for the Distinguished Woman Researcher award in the category of Natural (Life and Physical) and Engineering Sciences.  ‘I am very grateful for this recognition,’ said Downs.

‘I hope I have made a difference in encouraging young people to pursue science as the world needs it to correct many of the wrongs us humans have done to it.  I hope I have instilled in them the desire to be curious and to persevere with their work.  And I hope that young women realise they can persist with science and still do all the other roles they have to do,’ said Downs.

‘We at UKZN are exceptionally proud of the achievements of Prof Downs,’ said Vice-Chancellor of the university, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld. ‘Her continued efforts to strengthen the body of research emerging from the University of KwaZulu-Natal are applauded and she should be honoured for playing in the league defined by the Women in Science Awards.’

The announcement of the awards was made at a glittering ceremony held on the 17th of August in Johannesburg, as part of the DST’s celebration of Women’s Month. WISA recognise and reward excellence, and profile notable female scientists in South Africa as models for younger generations.

The theme for the 2017 WISA is Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work, which is the 2017 priority theme for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW).

Following the ceremony, Downs and other female scientists joined Minister Naledi Pandor for a dialogue on the topic of ‘Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work’. SABC 2 Morning Live broadcasted the event on the morning of the 18th of August.

Downs has been part of the School of Life Sciences at UKZN in Pietermaritzburg since 1994, and is consistently rated the top-published female researcher at UKZN. She is recognised nationally and globally for her work in biology, particularly in terrestrial vertebrate ecology. She has more than 264 international peer-reviewed publications to her name, is featured on popular platforms and has supervised more than eighty postgraduate students. She is part of research initiatives like the Durban Research Action Partnership (D’RAP).

She is a Fellow of the International Ornithologists’ Union, a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, and recently received the 2017 highly acclaimed National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)-South32 Award for Research Capacity Development. She was awarded the Zoological Society of Southern Africa Gold Medal in July 2017 for her outstanding achievements in Zoology in southern Africa over a number of years. Downs is also BirdLife South Africa’s Honorary President.

Downs, whose work over the years has included work on animals from Hadedas to Nile crocodiles, also gives credit to her postgraduate students for their contributions to her extensive, interdisciplinary research portfolio. This has been especially focused on how changing land use affects biodiversity and ecosystem health. It includes investigation of the urban ecology of various species and their persistence. Important conservation issues for Downs in this sphere are anthropogenic environmental change and changing land use, as well as climate change.

Downs chairs the Cape Parrot Working Group and has contributed to the annual Cape Parrot Big Birding Day for 20 years. She is passionate about science education and encouraging citizen science, and values opportunities to rally support for the protection of the various species she works on.

Words by: Christine Cuénod