Dr Nicola Koyama

Nicola is a Reader in Primate Behaviour and the former Co-Director of the Research Centre for Evolutionary Anthropology and Palaeoecology at LJMU, with more than 25 years of experience in primatology research and teaching.

Her fieldwork focuses on the importance of protecting primate habitats and conserving wild populations. She sees firsthand observations of primates in their natural environments as a privilege, recognising the urgency in preserving these opportunities for future generations.

“A core part of primatology has to be about protecting habitat and conserving populations in the wild.”

Her research has also focused on primates in zoos, including collaborations such as those with Chester Zoo.

Nicola’s curiosity about primates is something that she can trace back to her childhood, growing up in East London and making visits to London Zoo.

“A toy chimpanzee from a first visit, which I still have today, holds a special place in my heart. Who knows how much those early experiences inspire and direct us in later life?”

Those early life experiences are certainly something that has shaped Nicola and influenced her to follow a career in academia. Her mother had left school at 16 to care and support her disabled father, so she was keen to ensure Nicola had the opportunity to study beyond her school years. Nicola says that growing up in a single parent family, her mother and grandmother were strong female role models for her.

“My mother instilled in me the value of learning and the privilege of higher education. I was always encouraged to follow my interests and to go to university.”

And this is exactly what Nicola did. Initially focusing on biology, Nicola pursued an undergraduate degree in Zoology at University College London (UCL). Although drawn to biology, the prospect of endless hours in a lab looking at a microscope did not appeal to her. Instead, she gravitated towards animal research projects, particularly primatology, and an offer to work with a professor on a project looking at the behaviour of chimpanzees at London Zoo certainly solidified her direction of work.

“It was at that point I decided to pursue a primatology career, although in hindsight, maybe my 5-year-old self had already been primed!”

Nicola stayed on at UCL to undertake her doctoral studies, but with her supervisor moving to the University of Liverpool, she also made the move up north to complete the final year of her PhD.

Thinking that she would move back to the capital upon completion of her studies, a one-year lecturing opportunity came up at the university and soon enough an opportunity to teach bioscience, including primatology, with LJMU brought her into the John Moores fold.

“It was great timing. I had my PhD, some teaching and admin experience and had started building my own research projects.”

In the 25 years that Nicola has been at LJMU, she has established herself in a variety of teaching and research roles, taking on tutoring across multiple programmes, acting as a programme leader and being the architect of a variety of new modules. Early on in her LJMU career she joined the research group in biological anthropology, which has since evolved into the Research Centre for Evolutionary Anthropology and Palaeoecology (RCEAP), which until recently, she co-directed.

“LJMU is full of opportunities.”

– Dr Nicola Koyama

Among those opportunities are roles to drive forwards inclusivity across the university. As a member of the Staff Diversity Network for over 20 years, Nicola is an LJMU LGBT+ ally and a diversity and inclusion lead for the School of Biological Environmental Sciences and member of the Faculty of Science D&I panel. She played a key role in the school gaining Athena Swan Bronze accreditation, national recognition for advancement of gender equality.

Driven by a passion for inclusivity, in 2021 Nicola also co-founded alongside Moni Akinsanya, LJMU’s Associate Director of Diversity and Inclusion, LJMU’s Decolonising the Curriculum Working Group which seeks to identify colonial legacies and bias in teaching, research and systematic processes. This group aims to bring to the centre and empower marginalised voices. She acknowledges the challenges in encouraging engagement with decolonial narratives and emphasises the importance of fostering mentorship opportunities for aspiring researchers.

“I feel strongly that everyone in our university should feel that they belong here and can be their authentic self.”

Nicola is dedicated to her work, to her research and to the students at all levels at LJMU. This dedication has been recognised with awards in recent years for academic leadership and an education award by the students’ union JMSU. She was also awarded the Faculty Outstanding Doctoral Supervisor Award in 2019. She particularly enjoys her work with PhD candidates, guiding them through the challenges and triumphs of their academic journeys.

“A PhD journey is a big commitment and full of highs and lows. Striking that balance between collaborating and supporting, whilst giving students enough space to develop creativity and independence is really fulfilling.”

And her research on primates, in both their natural habitats and in zoos, is something that she continues to do along her multifaceted role, making time outside of the regular teaching semesters to write grant applications, conduct fieldwork to collect and analyse data, and prepare research findings for publication. Amidst these tasks, she occasionally finds herself in the lab, analysing faecal samples—a staple of primatology research! She also makes sure that her research links through to her teaching, getting students involved wherever she can.

“Being able to give undergrads the chance to get involved with exciting research is really fulfilling. It's rewarding to help that initial spark of curiosity grow into confidence and independence and see students taking ownership of their ideas and developing their own projects.”

For students aspiring to follow in her footsteps and perhaps to pursue a PhD, Nicola offers valuable advice: “People often say you can be whatever you choose to be, but the reality is that not everyone has the same career opportunities. My suggestion would be to seek out a mentor who can provide guidance and support along the way. This could involve reaching out to someone you already know or joining a relevant society or mentorship programme.”