Clemson graduate student wins academic excellence award, blazes new trail in wildlife conservation
A Ph.D. candidate in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences has been awarded the Frankie O. Felder Graduate Student Award of Excellence for persistence and academic excellence. The award recognizes Ingrid Nyonza Nyakabwa, a Ph.D. candidate in the Clemson’s Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management Department, as a trailblazing graduate student who faces challenges with courage and determination.
The award is named for Frankie O. Felder, senior associate dean emeritus, who was the first African American dean at Clemson University and also one of the first women to serve as dean.
Nyakabwa’s research is focused on wildlife poaching and conservation in Uganda, including how technology both benefits and hinders conservationists and poachers, as well as the flow of funding and the role of local communities in both poaching and conservation. Nyakabwa said her work has taken on an increased importance during the current global pandemic.
“The coronavirus has brought so much perspective to my research about wildlife poaching and wildlife preservation, particularly with this virus being zoonotic, transferred from animals to human beings,” Nyakabwa said. “The virus also raises other key issues, such as threats of increased wildlife poaching and the fact that tourism, which relies on wildlife as one of the key attractions, has come to a grinding halt. These are issues that are important because they illustrate that conservation is inextricably linked with livelihoods, human health and issues of security.”
Nyakabwa moved to Clemson from Uganda six years ago to pursue her master’s degree and is expected to complete her doctorate in August 2020. She has extensive background in conservation and tourism management, having worked with the Uganda Wildlife Authority in a job that managed tourism marketing for 10 national parks, 13 sanctuaries and 12 game reserves. Her work also required her to work closely with government agencies, diplomatic missions, media, conservationists and tour operators.
Nyakabwa says her experiences on the ground have enriched her academic learning.
“My practical experience gives me two lenses to focus from – the academic and the practitioner – which helps with many of the topics that we dive into in terms of research,” Nyakabwa said. “For example, when you look at the approach to issues of wildlife poaching in Africa and combating it through law enforcement or community conservation initiatives, certain perspectives can apply in a broader sense, but may not apply to a particular local context, so you have to apply that different focus.”
Nyakabwa says it was difficult to leave a job she found rewarding, but she felt she needed to immerse herself in graduate school to better understand tourism and conservation issues and to learn how to apply a scientific approach to policy and decision-making. Being at Clemson has afforded her this learning and given her opportunities to discuss these issues with other park leaders throughout the country and the world.
One such opportunity for Nyakabwa came in 2019, when she was part of an executive leadership seminar hosted by the National Institute for Parks. This 11-day intensive management session focused on leadership, innovation and organizational renewal for park and protected-area leaders.
“I was able to represent Clemson with this group of conservationists from throughout the United States and internationally, from countries such as Poland and Costa Rica,” Nyakabwa said. “It gave me an opportunity to discuss contemporary conservation issues with other leaders in the field and explore different conservation perspectives.”
She was nominated to this leadership seminar by Brett Wright, dean emeritus of the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences. Wright accompanied Ingrid to the seminar and was impressed with the depth of knowledge and insight she brought to the group.
“Ingrid has experience as both an academic and a practitioner, and she brought a tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise to the seminar discussions,” Wright said. “She represented both Clemson and Uganda well and I think she also learned a lot from the different perspectives at the table.”
Nyakabwa’s advisor, Dr. Betty Baldwin, says that Ingrid made a significant contribution to the seminar in her ability to engage with members of what is typically a seminar focused on National Park Service (NPS) staff.
“Ingrid stood out in her ability to engage in discussion with NPS staff members from all over the country,” Baldwin said. “The program director Steve Shackleton found me at a recent event to say that Ingrid participated in a way that brought the international element to the conversation for the group, as well as elucidated the complexity of poverty and park and wildlife management, and had been an invaluable member.”
Nyakabwa also applied for and received a competitive Rufford Small Grant for Nature Conservation, which she combined with a Clemson University completion grant to finish her data collection. The grant was new for Clemson University at the time, and her successful application has made the grant a possibility for other students researching conservation issues in the developing world.
Baldwin is confident that Nyakabwa will be a major leader in Uganda, East Africa and beyond after she finishes her dissertation this summer.
“I have seen Ingrid grow to become a professional capable of teaching research and working with professionals in the field,” Baldwin said. “I am excited to see what’s in store for Ingrid, and am grateful for her efforts in tourism and conservation.”
After she completes her Ph.D., Nyakabwa hopes to work with an agency focused on wildlife conservation. She is also exploring academic positions in parks, conservation or tourism management.
Above all, Nyakabwa says that her graduate studies have helped her find the missing piece of what she wants to accomplish in the conservation field.
“I’ve learned a ton about research and the scientific process, which strengthens my overall ability as a practitioner,” Nyakabwa said. “It’s a process that can sometimes feel like it slows you down, but at the same time it’s given me such a huge advantage to be able to see things from both lenses and, more importantly, to inform pragmatic decisions.”