Inaugural Lecture: Professor Sheona Shackleton

13 August 2014

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Deans, Heads of Department, colleagues, students, family and friends of Prof Shackleton, ladies and gentlemen – molweni, good evening, welcome.

The University Calendar lists all the current full professors of Rhodes University. Professor Sheona Elizabeth Shackleton, Head of the Department of Environmental Science, is one of the more recent entries on this list.

This evening, as is our tradition, we have the presentation of the Inaugural Lecture that follows the University conferring the status of full professor on an academic.

It is an evening on which as academic peers, colleagues, students, family, friends, and the public we celebrate the intellectual and scholarly achievements of one of our professors.

Sheona was born in Greenock, Scotland to rather migratory parents.  Her father was in the fossil fuel industry and moved around the world working with gas, oil and coal. So as a child she lived in Scotland; in Bahrain in the Middle East; in Cape Town; in Hwange and Harare in Zimbabwe; and lastly in Johannesburg.

However, it was growing up in the bush of northern Zimbabwe that instilled a love of nature, the environment and particularly savanna ecosystems. She knew from early on that she was going to study biology at university.

She completed a BSc majoring in Botany and Zoology at Wits in 1982, and received several merit awards and scholarships along the way. In 1983 she studied for an Honours degree in Ecology and was awarded the SA Breweries Gold Medal for the top Honours student in the Biological Sciences in her year.

Her Honours year was an important one for her in more ways than one, as it was also the year she started dating her friend, fellow classmate and soon to be life partner Charlie Shackleton.

It was also a fun year spent with several friends and colleagues who are now here at Rhodes: Fred and Karen Ellery, Nigel Barker and Martin Villet.

Sheona says she could not have imagined that they would all end up in Grahamstown at Rhodes University together some 30 odd years later.

After spending a year working for Prof Brian Walker at Wits and having some close encounters with big game in Savuti, Botswana, Sheona and Charlie married and in 1985 she moved to Umtata to join Charlie at what was then UNITRA (now Walter Sisulu University).

Sheona says that her four and a half years at the university proved to be educational and eye-opening for a “fairly naïve young woman from Joburg”.

It was during her time in Transkei that Sheona realised that it did not make sense, certainly in the context she was in, to study ecological systems without including people in the picture.

Her Masters degree set her on the path she is on today when she decided to study a thatch grass harvested from Mkambati Game Reserve by local communities.  How people relied on the resource, the impacts of harvesting and how to sustainably manage it were key themes in her largely ecological thesis. 

It was this work at the interface between people and the environment that opened the door for Sheona together with Charlie to join Wits Rural Facility – a donor funded initiative designed to foster inter-disciplinarily and community-engaged research, in the Limpopo Lowveld in 1989. 

Sheona’s years at Wits Rural Facility were exciting ones and this is where she met good friends Catriona McLeod and John Reynolds, also now at Rhodes. 

During her eight years at Wits Rural Facility, Sheona had the opportunity to work with academics from several different disciplines including medicine, education, engineering, anthropology, psychology, sociology and ecology.  The research she was involved in pushed the boundaries of traditional ecology, exploring rural households’ use of and dependence on natural resources as well as local systems for their sustainable management.

She also undertook a year-long correspondence course in community development for which she obtained a distinction.

With John Reynolds, Sheona led some of the early work in South Africa on sustainable livelihoods for the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Canada.

It was also during this time that Sheona and Charlie’s two children Ross and Claire were born.

In 1996, after a series of short term contracts, Sheona and Charlie moved to Nelspruit for a year and worked for Wits’ Health Services Development Unit where she led a survey of 60,000 people for a demographic and health surveillance project.

She and Charlie returned to Wits Rural Facility in 1997 for a short period before joining Environmentek at CSIR in Pretoria in 1998. After their move to the CSIR, Sheona returned to what she loved most – human-environment relations.

One of the enduring consequences of Sheona’s time at the CSIR is that she opened up the possibility for part-time positions for mothers of young children, after she insisted on this (having had this privilege at Wits Rural Facility) and after proving that she could accomplish as much as any full-time employee. 

During her time at the CSIR, Sheona received several merit bonuses for her thorough and quality work through recommendations by colleagues and clients. 

In 2000, Charlie accepted a position at Rhodes and Sheona decided that this was her chance to study for a PhD. She secured enough funding through a free-standing NRF prestigious PhD scholarship, a BP Rural Development Scholarship (one awarded nationally) and the funding she obtained through a proposal she wrote and submitted to SANPAD, to undertake this full-time.

Her research on poverty, vulnerability and the commercialisation of natural products took her back to Bushbuckridge where she worked with woodcraft, broom, mat and marula beer traders.

Sheona was awarded her PhD in 2005 (with no corrections), and graduated at the 2006 ceremony having completed it in two and a half years.

In the intervening years, Sheona earned additional income through freelancing, which included a position as a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Indonesia.

In 2006/2007 she received an overseas postdoc scholarship from the NRF and spent six months at CIFOR (where she was also a visiting scientist) and four months at Royal Road University in Victoria, Vancouver Island, Canada. 

Sheona joined the Rhodes Department of Environmental Science as a lecturer in July 2008. 

Over the years, Sheona has become locally and internationally recognised for her work on livelihoods, vulnerability and ecosystem services. She has a B3 rating from the NRF and received this on first application, almost 5 years ago.

Sheona has published extensively, and has over 100 peer review publications written with several different co-authors. Of these, 52 are journal papers, 42 are book contributions, published reports and books and 13 are published conference papers.

She has peer reviewed journal articles for 26 different titles, demonstrating her interdisciplinary expertise. She also has some 53 unpublished research reports and 31 policy briefs and popular articles to her name.

Sheona has presented at 68 conferences, with nine of these being invited papers and key note addresses. She has also convened nine panels at national and international conferences, often to provide a forum for her student’s research.

She has participated in 14 large, internationally funded projects with collaborators from around the world and has raised several millions of rands of project funding for her Department. 

Since joining Rhodes, Sheona has supervised three Doctoral and four Masters theses and is currently supervising three PhD and two Masters theses.

Sheona has also been actively involved in community engagement activities and was short-listed for the Community Engagement Award in 2013.

She has served on various external bodies including the National Forestry Advisory Council, the Advisory Boards of the journals World Development and Forests, Trees and Livelihoods, the Social Science Committee of SANParks and reviewed proposals for many different national and international agencies. 

For her recent sabbatical she received an EU Erasmus Mundus Scholarship to spend time at the University of Copenhagen. 

She is also very committed to this institution having served on the Joint Research Committee, Teaching and Learning Committee, Community Engagement Committee and Humanities Higher Degrees Committee. She currently serves on the Institutional Planning Committee, Environmental Committee, Faculty Committee and Senate.

Sheona became a full Professor in January 2013 and Head of Department of Environmental Science in January 2014.

It is my great pleasure to invite Professor Sheona Shackleton to address us. Her lecture this evening is titled “Linking vulnerability and ecosystem services in the context of heightened vulnerability and accelerated change”.

Last Modified: Thu, 13 Nov 2014 09:05:41 SAST