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.

Outbreak
Credit: https://www.empireonline.com/movies/outbreak/review/ 

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!

Protecting the Fynbos Biome: South Africa’s greatest natural resource

Is biodiversity more important than oil? Is it more important than the coal we burn for electricity in SA? What is South Africa’s greatest resource?

I want to argue that the fynbos biome is South Africa’s greatest natural resource because of its unique biodiversity, containing thousands of species that are only found in South Africa.

Biodiversity is the harmony of life derived from many years of evolution. It is the product of seemingly infinite natural equations that determine survival and reproduction success, of which, we are only just beginning to explore. Biodiversity is generally measured as the number and variety of species within an environment and it is a race to discover the complexity before our own irreversible actions proliferate.

E.O. Wilson, global leader in ecological conservation, has suggested biodiversity is the planet’s greatest resource.

BiodiversityGreatestResource

Why is it such a great resource?

Conserving biodiversity ensures the continued production of clean water, an abundance of species for exploring as medicinal products, and diverse gene pools for crops and natural resources. Biodiversity facilitates the production of these resources through processes such as soil formation, nutrient cycling, climate regulation, and pollination dynamics.

For example, the Cape Honeybee is endemic to the Cape Floristic Region (AKA Cape Floral Kingdom), meaning it only exists in this area of the world. This species uses fynbos vegetation for about 80% of its hives, where it produces honey. Not only is the production of honey a valuable resource, but the Cape Honeybee also pollinates agricultural crops is in the region, providing benefits to many Western Cape fruit productions. This example demonstrates the indirect benefits of biodiversity to agriculture, through the Cape Honeybee.

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The fynbos biome is also a ‘biodiversity hotspot’, being exceptionally diverse (and, therefore, epic in my opinion). It is one of only six biomes in the entire world, and it is the smallest and only biome contained within one country. (More information about the fynbos can be found here.)

Considering only plant species, the fynbos biome contains more than 7000 species, representing close to half of the plant species found throughout South Africa. In order to demonstrate the richness of this resource, I created the graphic below.

FynbosInfo

Along with the unique characteristics of the fynbos biome are unique challenges. As many as 1700 plant species in the Cape Floristic Region are threatened to some degree, representing 3/4ths of the plants in the South African Red Data Book (http://www.plantzafrica.com/vegetation/fynbos.htm). Much of these are threatened by urban expansion or land use change, such as conversion to agriculture, but what else should be investigated and mitigated?

I nominate invasive plant pathogens; a threat we can research with Cape Citizen Science.

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How are Phytophthora species affecting the biodiversity in the fynbos? Phytophthora cinnamomi is a root rot pathogen known to be present in the fynbos, but we have a poor understanding of what it is doing there. Although it has been dubbed as the biological bulldozer in Australia, we havn’t really studied its impacts on the biodiversity in the fynbos. How does one species affect the fynbos? How does it affect us? Does the pathogen kill plants that the Cape Honeybee relies on for foraging/shelter? Would there be different plants on the landscape if this pathogen was absent? All of these questions are still left unanswered.

PhytophthoraPlantExtinctionLowHow many of the 1700 threatened species in the fynbos are battling to survive the biological bulldozer?

There are many examples of pathogens that have nearly eliminated single species from the landscape (e.g. chestnut blight, sudden oak death, Dutch elm disease), but what happens when you have a generalist pathogen in a biodiversity hotspot?

There are also many questions about the diversity of the pathogens in the fynbos themselves. What is the diversity of Phytophthora species? How many species are there and are they native or invasive? How did Phytophthora cinnamomi get to the fynbos?

As you can see there are many unanswered questions that need to be addressed with more research. Understanding the effects and the diversity of Phytophthora species will help us conserve species in the fynbos. However, research is not free and life is short. That is why we are calling on you to release the inner scientist in you. You can contribute to research to help conserve the biodiversity in the fynbos biome by participating in Cape Citizen Science. More information about Cape Citizen Science is available here http://citsci.co.za.