Women's Month 2023: Salona Reddy

Women’s Month 2023: Salona Reddy

August is Women’s Month, and this year the National Research Foundation (NRF) is celebrating the remarkable contributions that have been made by women researchers for the betterment of humanity. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us.

Ms Salona Reddy is a Senior Ecologist at Exigent Environmental. She received funding from the NRF for her Master’s studies and a DSI-NRF Internship. 

What impact did the NRF have on your studies/career?

I received an NRF Thuthuka grantholder-linked bursary from my supervisor, Prof Finch; an NRF Innovation Master’s Scholarship; and an internship with the DSI-NRF Internship Programme.

The grantholder-linked bursary and Innovation Master’s Scholarship allowed me the opportunity to complete a Master’s degree in Environmental Science. My MSc was part of a larger project that focused on Lake Futululu, a system that has very little research associated with it.

Later, I was appointed as a DSI-NRF Intern at the Institute of Natural Resources which allowed me the opportunity to be placed in an environment where I was able to experience various spheres of applied sciences.

What has been your study/career journey?

I grew up in a small town. My home was much like a farmhouse, scattered with fruit trees and a large place to sustainably farm and experience the outdoors. This likely contributed to my love for the environment. The day I developed a passion for and interest in the environment was the day my late father introduced me to the most amazing reptile called a chameleon. Since then, I had the desire to work in a field that was related to the environment.

I was accepted to the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg Campus, to study Environmental Sciences with majors in Life Sciences and Environmental Sciences on a study loan. The day before the semester began, my family was involved in an accident while going back home. My father passed away, my mother was left disabled and my sisters were injured. I had to return to my home on the night of the accident and I was left to make many decisions.

I spent the next year working for my previous high school, assisting the educators in teaching mathematics, starting a conservation club, caring for my family, and applying for bursaries. I was determined to complete a dream that was built on an encounter with my late father. In the same year, my mother got stronger, fought against all odds, and resumed her employment which taught me to never give up. Later, I was fortunate enough to be offered a bursary for my undergraduate studies by a local mining company called BHP Billiton.

I was accepted to complete an Honours degree in Environmental Sciences where I used my dissertation to research Chromolaena Odorata, an alien invasive species, with a particular interest in habitat preference and management strategies. After Honours, I was offered a Master’s project in paleoecology investigating the palaeoenvironmental change in the Mfolozi-Msunduze catchment through fossil pollen and charcoal analysis of a sediment core from South Lake Futululu, northern KwaZulu-Natal.

I was fortunate enough to be granted the NRF Thuthuka grantholder-linked bursary and NRF Innovation Master’s Scholarship which allowed me to complete the research. These funding opportunities additionally provided me the opportunity to attend two conferences where I presented my MSc to other students, academics, and professionals. 

Later, I was employed by an environmental consulting company where I practiced as an Environmental Assessment Practitioner (EAP) focusing on Environmental Processes such as Basic Assessments (BAs), Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), Water Use Licences (WULs), and Environmental Compliance. I always knew my heart was set on ecology and conducting specialist work which led me to transition to Exigent Environmental where I am currently employed as a Senior Ecologist.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

I am a Senior Ecologist registered as Professional Natural Scientist under the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions. My focus is fauna, flora, wetland, and riparian assessments, rehabilitation plans, and search and rescue operations. I am responsible for providing specialist input to Environmental Assessments such as BAs, EIAs, WULs, risk assessments, mitigation measures, mining rights, and processes. I am trained to identify rare data species listed under NEM: Biodiversity Act (Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) and species identified as endangered, vulnerable, and near threatened by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

My MSc focused on investigating a Holocene palaeoenvironmental record from South Lake Futululu, a blocked valley lake in the Mfolozi-Msunduze catchment, northern KwaZulu-Natal. With the use of a multi-proxy approach was applied, combining accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating, with fossil pollen and charcoal analysis to investigate Holocene climate and vegetation change. Interesting observations were made in the record, indicating forest expansion and retraction, pollen preservation hiatus, shifts from coastal forest to coastal grassland thicket, and linkages to charcoal fire regimes and fuel types, reflecting the interplay between changes in available fuel within the landscape, and shifts between natural fires and anthropogenic burning.

Why is your research/work important?

My MSc research provided a greater understanding of the South Lake Futululu wetland area and surrounding landscape. The research provided a Holocene record covering the past ca. 7 600 years from the South Lake Futululu blocked valley lake, furthering the palaeoenvironmental research into the Mfolozi-Msunduze catchment, and contributing to our understanding of Holocene palaeoenvironments in the Maputaland region of Southern Africa. I was particularly interested in the South Lake Futululu record because it falls under the understudied Mfolozi-Msunduze catchment and provides an extension of the existing knowledge of palaeoenvironments in the subregion.

My current involvement in ecological studies helps individuals, competent authorities and applicants understand how our actions affect the environment. These studies help us understand the extent of damage we cause to the environment and the potential degradation of land.

My current work as an Ecologist has allowed me to gain a better understanding of how terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems function and interact. I can gain insight into the complex processes that shape these ecosystems. Through these ecological and wetland studies, I can protect various floral and faunal-sensitive species of conservation concern and areas of high ecological value. I can assist in environmental decision-making when it comes to the conservation and management of environmental resources in a sustainable way. I hope with the contribution of ecological studies in South Africa we are able to provide new knowledge of the interdependence between people and nature. This is especially vital for food production, maintaining clean air and water, and sustaining biodiversity in a changing climate.

There is still a long way to go to truly achieve equity and a sense of belonging for women, be it within the research community or society in general. How do you envision yourself contributing to this space?

I have been fortunate enough to be groomed academically (Prof Finch), professionally (Ms Adam), and personally (my mother) by females who are driven by empowering and supporting other females. I have been blessed and I owe these ladies the success of my being. Being a woman in a still male-dominated career has truly made me work extra hard to be heard and seen.

Working for a woman-owned and dominated company, I strive to mentor and help other girls who are following a similar career path as my own. I was fortunate enough to be mentored by Ms. Adam (managing member of Exigent) who has instilled the importance of skills transfer, mentoring, and support into me. During my career, I have been able to mentor two girls who are both thriving in their careers as environmentalists.

I do not shy away from any challenge that may be thrown my way. I hope to develop an organisation in the near future where girls interested in STEM and STEM female professionals network in the science field. I hope that this networking leads to mentoring, collaborating, and opening doors to exchange innovative ideas to support both professionals and youth. This is because I truly believe in supporting, empowering, and building the females around us.

Lastly, I hope to create awareness among STEM female professionals on the impact that skills transfer, mentoring and support will have on young professionals. I am driven to continuously give back because I hold Tata Madiba’s words close: “There is no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return.”

What advice do you have for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers?

Research! There are branches of science that exist then there are branches that exist within these branches, some overlap and some are parallel. I wish I had taken the time to research all these branches. I wish that I had been able to network with other professionals in the field to see things from their perspective. My advice for STEM ladies is to use their time to research and network with professionals in their field of interest. I hope STEM girls are never afraid to ask and ask again. I hope STEM girls know they need to be strong, bold, proud, brave, and confident to walk into any room and demand to be heard, while at the same time being humble enough to listen, respect and be respected.  

This work is licenced under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 South Africa (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 ZA) license. Please view the terms for republishing here.

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