College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

From PhD Straight to Parenthood for Ecological Sciences Graduate

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Achieving the title of Dr is a childhood dream come true for Islamiat Abidemi Raji as she graduates with her PhD in Ecological Sciences. This is not the only new title she acquired – two days after submitting her thesis, Raji gave birth to her first child.

Raji successfully completed her research within three years. Her study, which investigated the effects of land-use change on the distribution and use of Ficus (fig tree) species by frugivores in the urban mosaic landscape of Durban, was supervised by Professor Colleen Downs.

Originally from Nigeria, Raji received her Master’s in Conservation Biology from the A.P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute at the University of Jos after completing her undergraduate degree in Forestry and Wildlife Management at the University of Ilorin, where she was the first and only female student in her class and the top graduating student in her department.

Having encountered research from UKZN during her master’s studies, Raji put UKZN at the top of her list of universities to apply to for PhD studies, and was accepted. She gave up her job to travel to South Africa, arriving alone to begin her fieldwork in 2019 before her husband Mr Johnson Abidemi Adebayo joined her.

Completing her PhD was a challenging experience – Raji faced a language barrier as she interacted with isiZulu speakers during her fieldwork, had her fieldwork disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and worked throughout her pregnancy to complete her thesis before her son, Rehoboth, arrived. She said undertaking PhD studies in a new country taught her humility, patience and resilience, and left her feeling fulfilled.

‘This is what I really wanted to do, so I set out with a positive mind-set and was able to maximise every opportunity that came my way.’

During her studies, she was able to travel to three countries outside South Africa to attend training, workshops and conferences, and meet and collaborate with other researchers.

The highlight for Raji was the supervision she received from Downs, who was committed to her progress. She enjoyed the diversity of Downs’ laboratory, with people from different fields of expertise and background working together.

‘Research naturally opens one up to different opinions and new ideas, and studying biodiversity is always intriguing,’ she said. ‘This study improved my curiosity and fostered my ability to think and rethink, giving me a new perspective on life.’

Raji’s research involved looking at fig trees, of which there are about 124 species in Africa, which provide food to more than 1 200 vertebrate species, often available during times of food scarcity. It enhanced understanding of the role of birds, bats and other mammals in seed dispersal, germination, and the effect of land-use changes on fig-frugivore interactions along forest-urban gradients.

Raji has already achieved one publication with others under review. She hopes to contribute to improved conservation and management strategies for these keystone species, particularly in Africa as changing land use and population growth threaten the habitat and survival of these trees and the animals that they depend on and vice versa. Ficus trees can contribute to urban greening as part of habitat corridors that enhance landscape connectivity and help degraded landscapes to recover.

Raji is exploring postdoctoral opportunities, aiming at a career in academia.

She expressed profound gratitude to Downs for her support and guidance throughout her studies, calling her a surrogate mother. She thanked Downs’ other postgraduate students for their support, and Professors Idowu Adeoye, Kim R McConkey and Phoebe Barnard for their mentorship and input. She also thanked the National Research Foundation and The World Academy of Sciences for funding her research.

She paid special tribute to her husband, who is also pursuing his PhD through UKZN in Agricultural Extension and Rural Resource Management, for his belief in her, support, time, assistance with fieldwork, lending an ear, advice and contributions. She also expressed gratitude to her parents, parents-in-law, and friends for their prayers, encouragement and belief.

A spiritual person, Raji said that conducting this research also gave her a deeper appreciation of God. She attributed her success to Jesus Christ, saying she drew strength, life and godliness from her faith throughout her research, finding inspiration in the scripture of Romans 8.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied