Professor Colleen Downs, South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape in UKZN’s School of Life Sciences was a finalist for a Standard Bank Top Women Award in the category of Top Woman in Science.
The 16th annual Standard Bank Top Women Awards were announced at a gala dinner in Johannesburg on 15 August attended by business and government leaders, VIPs and members of the media.
One of South Africa’s most prestigious gender-empowerment events, the awards recognise organisations and individuals whose efforts are uplifting women in business and society in general. Nominations were rigorously screened by an esteemed advisory panel, judges and editorial contributors.
Downs’ admirable leadership, business acumen and strategic foresight in the university and research domains that have driven exceptional performance in the biological sciences make her a worthy finalist for the Standard Bank Women in Science Award. She is recognised as one of the top female zoologists in South Africa, and has earned international acclaim for her work in biology, particularly in terrestrial vertebrate ecology where she has worked on animals from Hadedas to Nile Crocodiles.
Downs has been at UKZN since 1994, where her research interests have included conservation, ecology, and the physiology and behaviour of terrestrial vertebrates with changing land use and climate change. She is consistently rated the top-published female researcher at UKZN, with her varied research interests making her one of the best-placed biologists in southern Africa to head up integrated, interdisciplinary research.
Downs is also passionate about science education and the development of research capacity at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and has dedicated time to empowering other women pursuing research and academic careers, encouraging persistence, strength and support for one another. She is known for involving her students in publishing research, saying it is important to develop their skills in producing publications.
Her professional achievements are extensive. Downs was recently elected an Honorary Fellow of the American Ornithological Society in recognition of her valued contributions to ornithology and commitment to science. She is a Fellow of the International Ornithologists’ Union, a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, and 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 2017 for her outstanding achievements in Zoology in Southern Africa over a number of years. Downs is also BirdLife South Africa’s Honorary President.
Her research has reached beyond academia into applied conservation. Downs chairs theCape Parrot Working Group, highlighting the plight of South Africa’s only endemic parrot and co-ordinating academic research and citizen science programmes, as well as overseeing and contributing to management plan developments, CITES listings, and more practical conservation programmes. She is committed to integrating the research findings on many of the rare and threatened species she and her postgraduate students have worked on into conservation activities.
Words: Christine Cuenod