Student Fulfils Grandmother’s Prophecy

‘I was a UKZN fan since I was in high school,’ says newly capped Dr Thobeka Gumede. ‘My grandmother was a domestic worker in Westville and every time we went to her workplace she would say: “One day you will be a student at UKZN.” And here I am today!’

Gumede graduated with a PhD in Ecological Sciences at the Autumn Graduation Ceremony for the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science. She was supervised by Professor Colleen Downs, and Drs Dave Ehlers Smith and Yvette Ehlers Smith.

‘My research focused on the impact of forest fragmentation on avian (birds) communities in the mist-belt forests of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape,’ said Gumede.

‘Fragmentation is often defined as a decrease in some or all types of natural habitats in a landscape, and the dividing of the landscape into smaller and more isolated pieces. As the fragmentation process develops, the ecological effects change.

‘Fragmentation can be caused by natural processes such as fires, floods, and volcanic activity, but is more commonly caused by human impacts. It often starts with what are seen as small and harmless impacts.

‘Since birds are a most important part of our lives and play a big role in ecosystem services that we as humans benefit from, I looked at how the fragmentation of their forest habitat is affecting them in terms of habitat size and the vegetation structure.

‘From my findings I was able to provide recommendations on how we can promote suitable habitats to save our forest avian species and have a paper published from my PhD,’ she said.

Gumede explained what motivated this area of interest: ‘At first, I was all about a career that is going to pay me more money. Things took a turn after my honours degree when I started to have more questions on how we can promote a habitable planet for all of us. That is when my passion for research began. Since that day I have never looked back.’

Gumede’s research provides new knowledge on the interdependence between people and nature that is vital to sustain biodiversity in a changing climate. ‘Healthy terrestrial ecosystems are vital for human welfare and survival, as they provide us with essential products and benefits,’ she said.

Currently, Gumede is funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) under the supervision of Downs as a UKZN post-doctoral research fellow. ‘My dream is to work for an organisation that will allow me to grow and flourish in research,’ she said. ‘Maybe someday I will start consulting.’

She thanked her family for being the reason that she always pushed herself to be a better person every day. ‘I am the eldest of seven kids, therefore, I cannot afford not to be a good example to my siblings,’ she explained. ‘All I want is a better life for my own family.’

Gumede dedicated her PhD to her late grandmother – the initial spark that set her on the road to university.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Supplied