It’s a wrap!!!

Nothing beats the smell of fresh air especially as you reach the end of the tunnel; in this case, the end of the year. It’s been quite a ride and we ended this year’s long journey with our annual End-of-Year Postgraduate Seminar! The one event where the intellectual capacity of the department comes to share their research and open doors for further research.

The UFS Department of Zoology & Entomology postgraduate seminar is an event where postgraduate students present their research and findings with the rest of the department. It’s spread over two days of presentations all day long. This is where one gets to experience the heart and soul of zoology research. This year the research quality was world class. It really was an event to marvel at. The experience gave me a lot of ideas around my own research and what still can be done.

This month, though, I am just grateful and want to reflect on the rest of the year – it’s not been an easy one. So I only started my MSc this year and I chose the field of aquatic toxicology. When I started I thought it was going to be an easy one. Little did I know that it would take me out of my comfort zone and lead me into the space where the only thing I have is happiness. I got to explore the field of analytical chemistry through the interdisciplinary field of toxicology. I also derived some lessons from people that I work with…

  1. It’s okay not to be sure. This gives room for exploring, curiosity and knowledge. When I started I wanted to understand the relationship between carbon and bio-available nitrogen in water. This later changed to understanding the adsorption capabilities of the activated carbon and how it can be used in wastewater treatment. This later changed to understanding the nutrient dynamics of treated wastewater and the receiving streams. Shifting from topic to topic gave me an opportunity to read more and more and to identify several gaps within my field. If I were to do another degree, I am pretty sure I will know what to look at.
  2. Communication is key. Our lab has these weekly presentations where we give reports on our progress. One might say it’s too much. It might be for some people. But looking back at the seminar that just passed as well as the readiness and confidence of my peers during our individual presentations, the weekly stress was worth it. Science does not add value to society until it can be communicated. One of the ways we can do that is by presentations and sharing our research. Two of my colleagues published their data this year. I am currently working on two papers that I believe will be out in 2019.
  3. Your colleagues are not your enemies. One of the greatest values that the postgraduate journey adds to one’s life is professionalism. It also highlights the importance of collaboration and sharing data. Being able to go out there and become a world renowned scientist begins in the laboratory where you support each other as postgraduates and talk about your research and figure out how you can help each other.
  4. You will never have enough time. I felt that time was a relative construct throughout this year. By that I mean that it depends on who is conscious of it, who is using it and how one is using it. I have spent several days without proper sleep. I’ve spent nights in the office and in the lab. Mostly, I would still be behind on my work. I then, finally, found out what I was doing wrong: I spent those nights doing a 100 things and not finishing even one of them. Until I could have a proper schedule and daily goals, I kept wasting my time. Now I have learned and I know better.
  5. Getting a different perspective does help. We often get so wrapped up in what we do that we don’t consider people from other fields of research to be of any value to our research. My academic mentor, who is an ecologist by training, has added quite a lot to my research. Talking to him in trying to make sense of my writing or results has helped me to be better at what I do. If you really think about it, someone who is not an expert at what you do will demand that you explain your research as you would to a grade 4 learner. By doing this, everything becomes clearer even to you. So let it out. As long as you have audience, you will be better at what you do.

As we conclude 2018, I would like to leave this with you. When I was doing my first year 20180907_101256.jpgI had a pleasure of attending a leadership workshop by Prof Jonathan Jansen. He talked about a learner who was always failing and always being scolded for it. One day he came home with the highest mark he’d ever gotten in his life. His father was not happy at all. He asked his father why and his reply was, “There is always room for improvement”. So to postgraduates who feel like their supervisors are mean and unfair, there is always room for improvement. I have had to spoon feed myself these words this year. Any postgraduate student can attest: even when you feel like that paper or presentation or writing was your best, your supervisor will always find something wrong or something that needs to be changed. As much as it hurts, we do become better through that criticism of our best work. Let your 2019 be the year of improvement.

Remember…

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence”

~ Vince Lombardi

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.

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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.