Women in Ecology – Lavinia Perumal

Lavinia is one of the African women in ecology who are pioneering stewards of the environment, passionately leading initiatives for sustainable conservation. Her dedication echoes through diverse ecosystems, fostering a harmonious balance between nature and people;

Hi Lavinia. You are welcome to this session of Words That Count. Thank you for joining us
Hi Winnie, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be among the 2024 guests.

You are welcome once again. Briefly introduce yourself to our audience, please
My name is Lavinia Perumal from South Africa. I am currently finishing up my PhD at the University of Cape Town, based at the African Climate and Development Initiative. Broadly, my PhD work looks at how different road infrastructure systems will change the way we use land. And this, for me, is how I see ecology; I guess it might be slightly different for everyone. But it is mainly about how the patterns and processes of the natural world come to be.

Part of my work has been understanding why natural systems are the way they are, and then how they transform with change in the social world. I am looking at the system and seeing how it works from an environmental perspective. How do the elements of nature work together to ensure the integrity of the ecosystem? That is Ecology – broadly.

Allow me to inform the audience that I know you from a different part of life, which involves work related to Systems Design. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Yeah. So, I am getting more and more into systems design. As you already know, I am a trained design thinking coach. What does this mean? I basically help people and teams move from understanding an issue they would like to solve to coming up with a solution to address the problem in some way. With my background, I try to bridge the gap between design and research.

For instance, we are working on a project now for co-creating climate solutions. The idea is to merge different types of thinking and doing, to design a solution that addresses a specific climate change issue from a systemic point of view. The aim is to see how we can co-create sustainable solutions in different contexts, in terms of meeting human needs and understanding the system within which the problem exists.

That makes me very excited. You know how I am with intersections between different fields of life and trying to come up with something common for everyone!

Going back to your work in Ecology, can you walk us through your STEM journey leading to your Ph.D. in Ecology?
It is an interesting journey! I almost just stumbled upon it, haha.

I grew up in Chatsworth, Durban in South Africa. My ancestors arrived here many generations ago. During apartheid, Chatsworth was a designated area for Indian people, very densely populated. So, I never really had a relationship with nature. Through our religious practices, we did interact with nature, but I don’t think I had an appreciation for it or the Ecology.

Joining university, I just picked one of the courses, which happened to be a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science. It was one of those cases where you don’t know fully where you’re going. Luckily, there were parts of the degree that I enjoyed very much. It took me back to this point in my life where, as a child, I was interested in understanding how things worked. I liked the Ecology aspect because it made me think about how natural systems exist and why they exist in that way.

I did my honours and left the University of KwaZulu Natal to pursue a Masters at Rhodes University. That is where I started to clearly understand what Ecology is. My masters was technically in Botany but it was Ecology in reality. I started understanding why a certain phenomenon was more prominent than others. The beginning was about understanding how trees or nature in general, work. But then I realized that there was this whole other element of nature, which is people! I started looking at Ecological problems as social problems too. So yeah, now I am still an Ecologist but I work at the interface of human and natural systems.

In my PhD, I am trying to figure out how road infrastructure drives this entire ecosystem. Think about roads as catalysts for any change that might happen in the region from an economic development perspective. What that would mean is the way we use land would change because road infrastructure underpins various land use activities! At the risk of oversimplifying, this will likely mean that land that is currently natural will be more susceptible to change following road construction. So, it has been about understanding how roads may catalyze or enable a loss of natural land because people will want to expand or develop new land uses because of increased access through road development.

This is such a unique combination of fields! You must have faced your share of challenges, combining two different fields in one study. Tell us about those
My biggest challenge has been the type of topic this is! It requires a range of skills and exposure to different knowledge types. I want to know how roads work, from a socio-economic perspective but also understand elements of the natural systems that are impacted and bring those two together to build the bigger picture. The beginning was, especially, very unclear. Now, I have a better understanding of what I can study.

I remember coming to this big university, the University of Cape Town (UCT), feeling very small at first. I feared that people already had this clear idea of what they wanted me to do, and I didn’t. There was certainly a lack of confidence at the beginning.

Moving into new spaces comes with its challenges because it is a different social environment. This can make a PhD a very lonely journey. Especially when you are working on something interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary. Because of my project’s nature, I do not belong to any specific lab, team, or discipline. That alone is challenging. But I have learned how to ask for help when I need it.

If these are challenges that are still prevailing, then how do you find your motivation to move on?
I think for a long part of the PhD, I did give up! I am like, 6 years in – I have been on a leave of absence for about two years because I had to support myself financially. During this period, I have taken time to understand who I truly am, which has helped boost my confidence. Honestly, for a long time, I didn’t think I could do a PhD! I thought that it was what other people did, not me. I came from a family where people barely finished school. So, a PhD was not within my vision, I guess.

But what I have managed to do is learn who I am and through that become more comfortable with myself. I have also learned to embrace this idea of failure, which has ironically led me to understand that I can do a PhD. This has been a pushing factor for me to find that inner strength.

Combining that with the external help I am now receiving has been very powerful. I now have the motivation to finish what I started.

I know this is a hectic journey, but the end will be beautiful. And, at the end of it all, you should know that you deserve all the success and congratulations coming your way
Thank you! It is amazing to hear that out loud from someone else. When you grow up without hearing that, you just assume you don’t deserve success. Maybe this is something young people need to hear more often.

Based on the challenges you have talked about, do you think if someone in this field gave you mentorship, it would have helped?
Yeah, definitely! It would have made a tremendous difference. Within a PhD, you get quite lost and you’re so deep down that you almost can’t come back up to the surface to get a bird’s eye view of what’s going on. So, if you have someone who knows, to some extent, your subject matter, that can be helpful. Another aspect is having someone who resonates with your character. Not necessarily agree with, but someone that you are comfortable with. I also think it can make a world of difference.

Lavinia, we have talked about the challenges and what motivates you to move on, but I’m sure there have been some very prestigious moments. Share some of those with us
It is strange how difficult it is to pick something that I was excited about. I guess I am learning to celebrate myself. What I can think of is not a tangible thing, and I am not saying I get it right all the time, but… The ability to recognize the value of failure and the patience to learn from it. Normally, before doing something, I am worried about it not being good enough, because that will mean I am not good enough. It has been that gradual ease of not feeling the need to be the best. It doesn’t happen all the time, I still obviously feel it, but I am less scared of what I put out there in the world.

That’s a whole different level of maturity! There sure is power in letting go.

Lavinia, you have shown us versions of yourself in Ecology and Systems Design. But, who are you outside of work? How do you enjoy spending your personal time?
Ah, interesting! I guess I have been finding people that I enjoy being around. It is a blessing to find such people in this life. The other aspect is the ease I experience when interacting with nature. For instance, going into the water is, for me, very peaceful. I also like yoga, but not exercise yoga, haha. Just moving my body – flowing.

Do you have a favorite quote?
I think I have seen a few recently and I was like, oh, that’s interesting! I might get this slightly incorrect but one that comes to mind goes something like, “Don’t make any decisions for someone that they can make for themselves” ~ Anonymous.

Imagine there is an African girl who is passionate about STEM, but they don’t know how to move forward with it. How would you encourage them? What sort of advice would you give them?
First is for them to recognize their passion for STEM and maybe ask themselves what they want to achieve out of that passion and why. At the same time, to ask for help, make the effort to reach out to people, even if you don’t know what you’re going to say. Simple things like, “How does this work?”, “help me, I am struggling.”,… There are a lot of people out there willing to help if you ask. For example, an important part of the work I do is to help others find their way. But, I would not know who needs that help unless they ask.

I totally agree with you. We have grown up in a system that teaches us to shy away from asking a lot of questions. You don’t stress people. You don’t approach people because they’re dealing with a lot of things. But surprisingly, I have come to realize that people are always willing to respond, help, or lend a hand. We just don’t take advantage of that because we do not know
Yeah! Lastly, I encourage them to believe in themselves. Trust that passion because it does not come from nowhere. There is a reason for it.

Lavinia, I would like to thank you so much for sparing the time to speak to me and our audience. Thank you for teaching us about Ecology.

And the audience, if you are struggling with your PhD, you don’t understand what’s going on, you are not alone on this journey. So, please do not give up on yourself.

Until next time, BYE!

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