Londiwe Mokoena: A grass tussock in a savanna: My journey in occupying space in the world of ecology


For Black History Month, the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. The theme for UK Black History Month this year is Time for Change: Action Not Words. Londiwe Mokoena—a postgraduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa—shares her story below.

If someone had told me at the beginning of this year that I would be writing about my journey as an ecologist—in a blog celebrating Black ecologists from around the world—I would’ve told you that I was an aspiring ecologist as opposed to an ecologist. My journey in finding my voice, and occupying space in the world of ecology, confidently and loudly begins with this blog. My name is Londiwe Mokoena—I am a postgraduate student—currently completing my MSc in Animal, Plants and Environment Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa—with a passion for savanna and fire ecology, and a mild obsession with grasses.

Londiwe with Organisation of Tropical Studies (African ecology course) students teaching them how to identify grasses

I would like to say I stumbled upon ecology; however, in total honesty my interests peaked at a very early age—I was just unaware. One thing I remember about my childhood is watching national geographic shows with my Dad every Sunday at 5pm. Unbeknownst to him, he sparked an interest in me at the age of 5. My flame was further ignited when I joined the scouts in primary school. Fortunately for me, the school I went to was part of the Eco-Schools Program sponsored by the WESSA and Birdlife. In this program, they took young promising students from townships and exposed them to environmental studies—this is where I learnt about birdwatching and plant identification skills. I then enrolled for a degree in biological sciences at the University of Witwatersrand and, in my 3rd year, I was fortunate to work as an assistant for Prof. Sally Archibald—a lecturer in one of my 2nd year modules. Working for and being mentored by Prof. Archibald exposed me to the world of savanna and fire ecology. This led me to develop an interest in grasses, and I enrolled for my Honours and am now pursing an MSc under the guidance of Prof. Archibald, Dr. Caroline Lehmann from the University of Edinburgh, and Dr. Anabelle Cardoso from the University of Buffalo.

Londiwe and Dr. Gareth Hempson teaching grass floral traits to Organisation of Tropical Studies (African Ecology course) students

My MSc aims to determine and quantify drought strategies in C4 grasses in southern Africa. This will hopefully help us to understand the links between drought tolerance and flammability in southern African grasses. In particular, I am looking at how the drought strategy of different grass species drives their seasonal patterns of leaf display (phenology)—this is largely experimental and has direct implications for understanding the distribution of grass species across southern Africa, as well as how they will respond to global change. This study aims to fill an important gap in correlative studies of species distribution modelling by developing a mechanistic understanding of the processes limiting different grass species across the region. So far, my results suggest that C4 grasses have varied drought strategies which can be linked to safety-efficiency trade-offs—as previously demonstrated in woody species. This suggests that grasses with low stomatal control (efficient) cure faster than those with a high stomatal control (safe) at the end of the dry season; thus, possibly resulting in longer dry, and more flammable, seasons.

The thing that I enjoy most about my research, and ecology in general, is that it allows me to ask questions and find innovative ways to solve problems—I get to work in an applicable science that also has an impact in the world. Furthermore, I especially enjoy that I am able to work on producing an African perspective of ecology. Lastly, I thoroughly enjoy all of the beautiful landscapes that I get to work in, and, of course, all of the grass species that I get to learn about and identify!

Londiwe and Happy Mangena collecting grass samples at the Kruger National Parks (Skukuza) burn plots

I am looking to expand my science network and meet other fellow grass/grassland enthusiasts! I am also looking for any PhD opportunities in savanna/grass ecology for 2023. I am also open to internship opportunities, I am interested in working in a collaborative setting where I can contribute to studies and gain necessary experience. I would love to be part of a global community of ecologists where we are all engaged in sharing and discussing research.

One of the downsides in STEM fields is the lack of representation and inclusion. I have not had the privilege to cross paths with a lot of black ecologists in the many years I have been in this field; however, fortunately I met Dr. Sivuyisiwe Situngu who is currently a lecturer in the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at Witwatersrand University. In 2019, she made the Mail and Guardian top 200 Young South Africans list in Science and Technology. She obtained her BSc Honours in Biodiversity Conservation from Rhodes University, and her PhD in Ecology, also from Rhodes. The title of her PhD thesis is “Studies in leaf domatia – mite mutualism in South Africa”. Watching her enter, navigate, and thrive in the world of ecological academia has been very inspirational. It is such an honour to be part of the 2023 group of black ecologists in this British Ecological Society blog series. This has given me a chance to evaluate all my achievements and see my growth over the years in my academic journey. I can boldly say that I am a black ecologist!

Although I did not see a lot of black ecologists when I started my journey in ecology, I am however at ease with knowing a lot of my peers are entering this field that are doing amazing work! With this new generation of black scientists, I hope that there will be more visible representation for aspiring young black researchers.

I want to give a shout out to the following individuals:  

  • Nolwazi Mbongwa: Nolwazi currently works at the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand. She does research in medicinal plant sciences and how socio-cultural factors influence the use and trade of wildlife. She is also a PhD candidate at the Institute of Communities and Wildlife in Africa (University of Cape town) looking at cultural value and sustainability of wildlife trade among traditional healers and Muthi traders in South Africa.
  • Mpilo Khumalo: Mpilo is an Ecosystems Ecologist (Ecophysiologist), currently doing a PhD at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. His current research project is called The EucXylo Phenomenological Trial. In this trial, Mpilo is studying the ecophysiological processes and environmental conditions that influence the formation of wood in forest trees.
  • Mthokozisi Moyo: Mthokozisi is a Ph.D candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand. His Ph.D research aims to understand what caused rainfall seasonality in Africa during the Miocene. Furthermore, Mthokozisi looks at the traits that are important for survival in seasonal environments, with a general focus on (without being limited to) plants.
  • Thando Twala: Thando is an Associate Lecturer and Ph.D candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her PhD. Looks at the factors controlling the distribution of South African Podocarpaceae through Investigating the environmental and demographic constraints controlling the distribution of four Southern African podocarp species.

Enjoyed the blogpost and want to reach out to Londiwe? Contact her via Twitter or email!  

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