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Inspirational Monday: Deaf Zoologist earns PhD in first for Conservation Sciences and UKZN

Deaf zoologist and PhD graduate, Dr Nancy Barker, collars a lioness as part of her PhD research.

Deaf zoologist and PhD graduate, Dr Nancy Barker, collars a lioness as part of her PhD research.

Published May 23, 2022


Dr Nancy Barker has made history by being the first deaf Biology doctoral graduate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

The Canadian-born academic received her PhD for work done on the ecology of African lions and spotted hyenas in semi-arid and wetland eco-systems.

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UKZN arranged sign language interpretation services on the day so that she could understand and fully participate in the graduation ceremony.

Barker, who was raised by deaf parents, says her graduation is the highest honour she will ever receive.

“It is an extremely special day not just for me but for deaf people everywhere.”

She thanks all the teachers, family members, friends, and mentors who played a role in her journey.

“My parents came from a time where sign language was looked down on, and as a result, received very limited education training and support.

“However, they provided me with full access to communication from the time I was born, and that early access to language was pivotal in providing me with the tools necessary to succeed in my education - to the point that I am obtaining a doctorate today.”

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From a very young age, Barker had an affinity for animals, especially carnivores.

“I find that I am able to understand the hidden language they speak through their bodies, by how they position themselves or indicate their intentions with a flick of the ear or a twitch in their muscles,” she said.

Her research was analysing the movement patterns of lions and spotted hyenas in various eco-systems ranging from semi-arid savannahs in Namibia to riverines and floodplains in the Okavango Delta of Botswana.

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“We wanted to understand the differences and similarities between these species in how they move through and use habitats across the landscape, so that we could see how their movements and use of space patterns influence and impact one another.

“This is important as both species are Africa's largest predators and compete for the same resources. Because apex predators regulate the animals that live within wild areas, this becomes relevant for the conservation of functioning and healthy ecosystems.”

In addition to these challenges, Barker says climatic issues bring on added stress through changes in the environment.

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This can lead to these species seeking resources elsewhere, potentially amplifying the chances for human-wildlife conflict as they move out into human-dominated landscapes.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, Professor Albert Modi, says this one-of-a-kind case for UKZN inspires greatness.