Blue skies and burnt trees

The Cape is a special place to do just about anything; surfing, whale watching, brewing, foresting and field tripping. On the 19th of August, I set off on a 3800 km journey to and around the Southern and Eastern Cape with one of FABI’s extension officers, Sandisiwe Jali, and two graduate students, Bianca Jardim and Sydney Sithole. The purpose of this field trip was to collect insect specimens and investigate various pest and disease issues in commercial forestry plantations. It isn’t often that the Tree Protection Co-operative Programme (TPCP) finds itself in the Cape, when compared to the much closer Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, which made this trip quite distinctive.

Field trips around South Africa are always memorable; you get to see more of this beautiful country, you get to interact more closely with other students, meet the people in the forestry industry, and put your finger on the pulse of plant health in SA. Our first stop was to Stellenbosch, wine country, to meet Deon Malherbe, a researcher at Stellenbosch University. Deon is monitoring a Eucalyptus (gum) trial, which was setup by Camcore–an international tree breeding organization–to look at the performance of various hybrids across different sites. This valuable trial is under attack by a number of Eucalyptus pests, which we helped Deon identify. Together, we worked out a scoring system for better assessing the damage caused by these insects.

From there, we set off east to Riversdale, about 50 km north of Still Bay, to collect a few pine logs containing the larvae of a woodwasp, Sirex noctilio. The larvae and adults of this wasp will be examined at FABI for the presence of a tiny worm, Deladenus siricidicola—a bio-control agent developed at FABI that has saved the South African forestry industry more than 400 million rand. Here we paused to take in some of the sights while we thought about what R400 million could buy you.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The next day, we continued east–towards Knysna–to meet Awelani Netshituka, a forester working for PG Bison at the Ruigtevlei office. Many parts of the Cape have been, and still are, at the mercy of a severe drought—the worst in 100 years. We were often reminded about using water sparingly by the little notes stuck on the walls near the taps and toilets of our accommodation. While the drought meant one couldn’t take long showers anymore, it also meant that much of the vegetation hadn’t had a good shower either. The dry conditions, high winds speeds and building fuel load led to the fires that swept through Knysna and the surrounding areas, claiming seven lives.

Awelani showed us some of the areas that had been devastated by the fires and the recovery operations under way to try and salvage some of the burnt timber. In the valley below the Ruigtevlei office, in front of thousands of dead trees, there are long lines of what looked like neatly stacked mounds of charcoal. When we asked what those lines were, we were told that they were the burnt logs they had harvested after the fire. They have harvested so much, the market is flooded. Now they have to try and store it! The arrangement of theses logs under sprinklers are called wet decks, which helps keep the wood moist until they can be used.

While many trees were harvested, the lesser-affected younger stands were left to recover. Awelani took us to some of these compartments. The prolonged drought has had a significant impact on these trees. They are trying to recover but without good rains they are being attacked by a number of different secondary or opportunistic pests and fungi, killing those too weak to put up a fight. And this wasn’t isolated to a single company or region. We saw more examples of this at a number of sites we visited.

For any industry growing plants and selling their products, climate is going to be a more important part of planning; for South Africa, a water scarce country, even more so. We are going to have to be smart with how we collect, store and recycle our water. For our plants, we are going to have to develop more efficient breeding strategies, develop and implement possible GMOs, and we are going to need more scientists to understand the effects of climate on pests and diseases because we are going to have many more blue sky days (no rain) and more burnt trees (any crop plant, really) if we don’t.


An Outbreak of inspiration

After one of our Professors, Sanushka Naidoo, challenged us to think about what it is that inspires us and what we aspire to be, I stumbled onto an opinion piece titled, “Why Universities need to tell better stories.” You might be wondering what aspiration and communication have to do with one another and I hope to make that clear by the end of this blog.

Like many of my fellow scientists, I was inspired to do science. The inspiration came not from a wonderful biology teacher or a visit to a local lab but rather from a movie called “Outbreak,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman. I was ten at the time (I know, where were my parents?) and after watching “Outbreak” five or six times, I decided I wanted to be just like the scientists I had seen on TV, working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I was going to rid the world of HIV and Ebola.


This kept me going for years! After I completed my undergraduate degree in microbiology, I applied for an Honours hoping to get a project with a Professor of virology, someone who studies viruses. Unfortunately, at that time they were only accepting female students. I then had to change my focus and ended up, thankfully, working on plant pathogens instead. You see, shortly after I started my Honours, I learned that I couldn’t handle blood all that well, and seeing that Ebola is a haemorrhagic disease that makes one bleed (a lot), I was lucky to have made the switch. Nine years later, I am a PhD candidate still working with plant pathogens and I haven’t looked back since.

While “Outbreak” isn’t strictly science communication, it did do a lot to inform me about what some viruses can do, how they spread and the risks they pose; even if it was a little “Hollywood.” Yes, it was a work of fiction shot in a studio in the United States but some of the images portrayed in the film reminded me of some of the photographs that captured the tragedy of the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Zaire. The release of “Outbreak” at the time of the Zaire outbreak popularized our concerns about a deadly virus spreading and so also created awareness about these deadly Ebola-like viruses. Remember this happened at a time when social media did not exist. If you didn’t learn about the outbreak from the TV, radio or newspaper, then the cinema was going to show it to you.

My work may seem less exciting to some, especially when you’re standing in a conversation with someone who works on cancer therapies or has found new ways to harness energy from the sun, but I have some wonderful stories waiting to be told. So do many others. Much of the world’s research happens at institutions of higher learning, by the researchers and students who work there. They research everything from HIV and evolution to cyber security and politics.

At the University of Pretoria, they have recently started something called “Research Matters.” This is one way of showcasing some of the most relevant research happening in South Africa, on its campuses. With the help of social media, the university is trying to generate a larger audience to share these stories with. While this is a start for research communication at our university, I often wondered if it shouldn’t be us, the scientists, getting ourselves and our work out there to the people who fund it and benefit from it.

There are journalists, or science journalists, for that. Yes, there are, and they have a role to play in communicating science but I think there are other ways for us to share our science too. Beyond communicating with the scientific community through scientific papers, posters and talks I have learned to get in touch with a broader audience about my work and other topics using my drawings, cartoons, creative pieces and even blogs. If I had the budget and the time, I think I would even make a film about it.

I have been told that I do not fit the typical scientist mold but I doubt anyone would be happy fitting a mold. We are all unique. Just because we are scientists doesn’t mean that we are only good at science. Some of my colleagues also sing, dance, rap, act, write, summarize talks in three minutes or less and, believe it or not, do it well; sometimes better than the science bit. Using these and other talents in innovative ways can create unique avenues for us to share our research and communicate these stories.

During my PhD, I really started to see what being a scientist was like. After struggling to communicate with friends and family about my work, I realized that I was like Motaba, the virus in “Outbreak.” The scientists “got me” but no one in the general public wanted me. If I didn’t evolve my way of thinking, my work would “infect” just a few and that’s when it clicked, I need an outbreak. If we are to share the wonderfully infectious world of science, we are going to need to be more infective!