A Journey to understanding, saving and conserving the Nigerian Biodiversity

This blog post is provided by Gideon Deme Gywa and is a special feature for Black History Month, in which the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories.

Introduction

I am Gideon Deme Gywa from Ganawuri (a small hub) in Plateau State, Nigeria. Growing up with my paternal grandparents was fun, and it really shaped my interest in being an ecologist. As a doctoral researcher in ecology in Professor Wei-Guo’s research group at the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences I am broadly interested in morphological and physiological macroevolution, and how the evolution of some specific traits contributes to adaptive plasticity in reptiles. I approach my questions from the molecular to whole-organism ecosystem interactions. At the moment, I use turtles as my model animal in answering some questions relating to eggshell evolution. During my undergraduate degree in Dr. Yoila David Malann’s group at the University of Abuja, Nigeria, my research focused on the efficacy of plant extracts against Plasmodium species in mice. But I had a swift change during my master research; I was starting to get interested in how environmental factors shape the life histories of organisms. I now worked on the physiochemical parameters affecting mosquito species composition in Jos, Nigeria, and I found out that Culex species are more associated with alkaline water. This opened up ways for me to assist Dr. Lotanna Micah Nneji (then PhD student at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences) as a field assistant. The project focused on the biodiversity and conservation of butterflies, amphibians and reptiles in the Cross River National Park, Nigeria. With the experience from the one-year field assistant job, I became very interested in studying the important role the environment plays in shaping adaptation of wildlife, and how wildlife can be conserved.

Gideon Deme Gywa doing field work. Photo credit: Prakash Bhattarai
Do you have any experiences you’d like to share about being a black ecologist/researcher, at any career stage?

As a black ecologist, the journey has been mixed with feelings of how interesting the field is and the reality of the difficulty of growing in the field. I remember applying for several PhD fellowships around the world, but have in some instances been told that the funding was not meant to cover my type of candidature. Some of the Principal Investigators (PIs) judged my future output based on my race, and believed that I will not make a “good” candidate, having studied in my own country all through my bachelor and masters.

Do you have any experiences you’d like to share about being a black ecologist in your country?

Like I mentioned earlier,I am from Nigeria, and most, if not all, Nigerians are black. The field of ecology in my country is viewed as being very “boring” by other scientists and students. This means that, as an ecologist, it is almost impossible to get funding for your ideas. Facilities to work on novel ecological parameters (vegetation cover assessment equipment, ecological physiology, behavioral physiology and more) are lacking. Some of these factors make it very difficult, if not impossible to succeed. A good example was when I applied for a small grant in 2018 to study how temperature determines sex in reptiles in Nigeria. The proposal was rejected because there was no incubator to incubate the eggs, and no controlled room temperature facility.

What would you like to see change in academia / the field of ecology for the better?

The field of academia is daily becoming almost impossible to grow in, especially the field of ecology. However, we can do better by improving diversity inclusion across all fields in academia, and still maintaining the academic standard. The black race is seen by some as grossly incompetent at answering interesting scientific questions. A recent example was the experience of my friend whose paper was rejected by the editor of a journal. The reason given for the rejection is quoted thus “I think to write papers that are competitive you should probably partner with more experienced authors in the western world. I understand that that might be difficult or impossible in SA, sorry”

Have you noticed any shifts in attitude from the scientific community towards members of the black community during your career? If so, in what ways?

I can say that the scientific community has stepped up to changing the narrative towards the black community. I must at this point acknowledge the British Ecological Society (BES) for leading the way for diversity inclusion in science. To mention just a few instances; the Ecologists in Africa research grant by the BES is a good example. The Black History Month blog post series is another great effort to be commended. Worthy to note also are the press statement releases by various scientific communities, and societies on “Black Lives Matter” but more actions can be encouraged to further improve the system.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself as a student/early career black ecologist?

I wished someone had told me that the field of ecology is very interesting but hard to survive in. Despite the challenges in the field, the gains outweigh the losses, so, do not get tired of helping improve the ecosystem.

Shout out to a fellow black colleague/friend in ecology

Shout out to Bashir Bolaji TIAMIYU (Twitter: @timmybash001) who is a PhD researcher in Plant Systematics and Biodiversity at the Wuhan Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Thanks to Nicholas Wu (Twitter: @NicholasWuNZ, https://wunicholas.wixsite.com/) for the useful discussions on ecology that has improved my skills since we met on twitter. Finally, I will like to thank Professor Malann for mentoring me through my bachelor and master degrees, and my dad Deme G. Dang for always encouraging me when the journey gets tough.

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