New Head of Department: Prof Sheona Shackleton

Conversations with the new HOD of the Department of Environmental Science

DES welcomes its first female and fourth HOD since its inception as a full Department in 2002. Prof Sheona Shackleton follows on from Prof Christo Fabricius, Prof Charlie Shackleton and Prof Fred Ellery.

Sheona joined the Department as a full-time staff member in July 2008, following eight years as an independently funded research associate with the Department. She is therefore a well-integrated member of the Department with some understanding of its history and development. She also comes refreshed and enthusiastic after a year’s sabbatical leave during 2013, two months of which were spent in Scandinavia.

We asked her some questions about her hopes and visions for her term as incoming HOD.

Kathy: What changes do you hope to facilitate in the Department in the next few years?

Sheona: The Department has functioned well under the previous leadership and so I envisage no major changes – indeed I see us as an active, enthusiastic, productive and collegiate, albeit small, Department, so why change what works.

However, I do believe it is time to revisit our mission statement and objectives, as this has not been done for a several years. We need to make sure these guiding statements and principles of ‘who we are’ still fit with where we see our strengths, our current research interests and where we believe we need to be going as a Department in the next 5 years. This is especially so, since, once we fill the vacant post left by Prof Fred Ellery, we will have three new, young staff members who need an opportunity to shape the future of DES. Furthermore, the external science policy and research funding environment has shifted substantially in the last few years and we do need ensure that we can continue to align with this, including the need for transdisciplinary and cross-country research, particularly in relation to environmental challenges and global environmental change. We also need to make sure that curricula are up-to-date and fit with new directions in Environmental Science.

Going back to the question of my hopes, if there is anything I would like to see, it is more collaborative, interdisciplinary projects amongst staff within the Department and with external partners both within and outside of the University. For me these bigger, often more generously funded, projects are really exciting; they provide an amazing learning environment for students that goes way beyond the individual thesis, they build the capacity of staff, and provide an excellent opportunity to produce research that can really contribute to policy and practice. I would like to see more projects of the nature of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) funded project on vulnerability and adaptation to climate change that we undertook with the University of Alberta, Canada over the last four years.

I would also like to see our community engagement commitments and activities grow, and this could be partly achieved by finding funding that supports community-engaged research and social learning processes.

Another area I feel quite passionate about is supporting collegiality, communication and exchange and recognising achievement. For this reason, I have modified an ‘interaction’ I saw after spending time during my sabbatical at the University of Copenhagen which involved breakfast ‘get-togethers’ once a month where people shared good news, anxieties and achievements in an informal atmosphere. For me good communication and mutual respect is the essence of a well-functioning and happy Department.

Kathy: Does the Department need to grow?

Sheona: Yes, the University is pushing us to grow postgrad numbers, and I think we are doing this well. With 17 Honours students this year we are close to the target we set ourselves of 20 students, and we all carry an above average senior postgrad load. The SARChI chair, filled by Charlie Shackleton, will also help us increase our Masters and PhD numbers. At undergrad level, we will be required to grow, but this will be slow, so there is nothing dramatic on the cards. In terms of staff we are hoping the Kresge Development position occupied by Gladman Thondhlana will become a full-time post. We also need to be thinking about the new 4-year curriculum the Department of Education is implementing.

Kathy: What do you see as the challenges you might face as HOD.

Sheona: I am new in the job and still learning the ropes, but one may be funding. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the University budgets have little leeway. It is therefore really important we continue to bring in our own research funding, but we also need to be thinking about funding for activities such as community engagement and student learning. We often draw on our own funding resources to help cover student field trip costs, socials, etc. which are all an important part of what we do.  So we do need the income that activities such as short courses bring.

Other than that, it will just be making sure I keep on top of all the many admin duties, while still maintaining my research outputs. I will definitely adhere strictly to our ‘no disturb’ writing day this year, as I feel if I don’t ring fence this then the admin may consume me. I am lucky that the University has given me a little bit of funding for a research assistant.

I also feel being a small Department that we are all a little too stretched at times as there is only a few of us across which responsibilities can be shared. For me, a challenge will be to make sure everyone feels that they can cope, that nothing slips, and staff don’t feel too overwhelmed. Sometimes I think we do overload ourselves with for example postgrads as there is such a lot of interest out there in what we do.

I am lucky in that some of the challenges faced by previous HODs such as adequate space for the Department have been sorted out. We have a really nice building now with enough space for everyone and we should fully use and appreciate it.

Kathy: Any last words?

Sheona: Not much other than I look forward to working with staff, students and colleagues over the next three years as the HOD, and that my door is always open to discuss concerns or brilliant new ideas for how to do things better (which will be duly acknowledged).