From humble beginnings to blazing a trail as a freshwater ecologist, Bindiya Rashni is paving the way for regional students to expand their knowledge and participate in developing systems and bodies of knowledge to help the Pacific’s river systems.
Rashni, a PhD candidate at the University of the South Pacific (USP) with research interests in freshwater ecosystems and hydrobiology, hails from Fiji’s Garden Island, Taveuni, with a farming background.
Growing up, she had the support of her family throughout her academic journey, which began at South Taveuni Primary School before moving to Fiji’s mainland, Viti Levu, to attend Rishikul Sanatan College. She later joined USP to pursue a Bachelor of Marine Science.
“In Taveuni, my school is near the sea, and I was always fascinated with anything to do with aquatic life, whether it be in the ocean or the river system. I believe that as I was at USP, my passion for learning about aquatic organisms and everything that dwells in any body of water guided me to where I am today,” she said.
Following the completion of her degree programme at USP, the enthusiastic Taveuni lass pursued a Master’s in Marine Science with a speciality in freshwater ecology.
Remembering her parents’ struggles when she was growing up kept her focused on working towards her goal and not settling for anything less.
“My father played a critical role in my aspirations. Recalling his struggles to get us through school throughout my primary and secondary years constantly reminded me of what I must do to give back to them and make my parents proud.”
“There were other people along the way that helped me a lot, like my mentor late Dr. Alison Haynes, whose significant contributions have helped me over the years and have seen me through some of my most difficult times at USP and in my pursuit of becoming a freshwater scientist.”
Rashni added, “The late Professor Bill Aalbersberg once invited me to work with some community members at Korolevu-i-Wai in Sigatoka, Fiji. I was working with the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area (FLMMA) on qoliqoli boundaries and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)”, sparking her interest in becoming a freshwater ecologist.
She further explained that after two years in marine science, she decided to pursue freshwater ecology in 2010, wading through rivers and collecting data.
Determined to put USP and the South Pacific region on the global map in freshwater ecology, she followed her dreams despite being “no professor of freshwater ecology in Fiji.”
“The only person I had when I ventured into freshwater ecology was Dr Alison Haynes. She retired when I joined, and I met her when she was 84, and by then, she was not in physical condition to hit the field with me. I became her hands and legs, and she was the only one in this field who dedicated her Tuesdays and Thursdays to teaching me for free.”
“Haynes was an academic godmother figure to me, and she taught me the flora and fauna of the insular river system, from the surface of the water to the bottom of the river, how things are dispersed, and how island geography theory matters.”
Having completed what Rashni considered a pass-over process from her most incredible mentor in freshwater ecology, the enthusiastic Taveuni scientist attained her master’s, but unfortunately, her biggest cheerleader, Haynes, was no longer around to see this momentous occasion.
“When Ms. Haynes passed away in 2016, I decided to take freshwater ecology to the PhD level because I realised that someone would have to take up the lead to be able to pass over the process. I didn’t want to repeat the instance when I turn 80, and then someone comes into my field, and I won’t be able to hit the field with them,” she remarked with a heavy heart.
“If I have to call myself a river scientist, I will say that I am a river scientist by training. Very little has been published about freshwater research in this region, and I hope we can change that in the future.”
As a community person, Rashni explained that she must apply what she has learned to help regional communities for the greater good.
“I am not a researcher whose work is motivated solely by a desire to publish; publication is just as important to me as its application. If I am working on something and I am giving up my nights, weekends, and other spare time, then it better be for the greater good, and I also hope that it will bring about a positive change or a nature-based solution, a successful restoration or taxonomy that is the basis of the management of an ecosystem,” she proudly said.
She also completed a fellow exchange program with the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service International Institute of Tropical Forestry (the Institute, IITF), and became the first international fellow to receive this fellowship.
The inspiring scientist is a regional coordinator for the Global Earth Network Observation’s Freshwater Biodiversity Network and hopes to contribute and put the Oceania tag and USP affiliation on a global agenda with over 300 freshwater scientists.