Biology & Evolution

A bridge builder of note – even into the past

From invasive plants clogging up rivers to ecological restoration, from Karoo and fynbos veld to palaeontology, bulbs and early man – these are some of the diverse topics that energise and interest plant ecologist Prof Karen Esler.

“My whole career is marked by a collaborative approach, working on the interface of different disciplines,” explains Prof Esler of the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology at Stellenbosch University. “I really like the stimulation of trying to find how we can communicate across the boundaries of different disciplines, because you often find that something happens at such edges to spark innovation.”

She believes such exposure to multiple disciplines trains students in collaborative methods through team research, and promotes new forms of collaboration and integration across disciplines. Recently, for instance, she collaborated with others to group some of her conservation ecology postgraduates together with economics students. They had to identify possible markets and uses for restoration projects.

“We cannot solve many of our very tricky challenges by only looking at it from the perspective of one discipline,” she advocates the need to the bridge the so-called “knowing-doing gap” to ensure sustainability. “Of course one needs to maintain disciplinary depth, but should also work out how to work across boundaries.”

This approach has had a significant impact on her career, and has resulted in Prof Esler being a highly productive scientist. This often cited researcher has co-authored 69 of her 120 scientific papers in the past eight years, peer reviewed articles for many top-quality journals in the fields of ecology and sustainable science, and was the editor of two practical books for landowners on how to manage their Karoo or fynbos veld. She is a core member of research teams such as the ICSU Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society (SAPECS), the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology (CIB) and TSAMA Hub, and plays her part in national conservation and environmental efforts such as the Fynbos Forum. Prof Esler also represents South Africa on the International Society for Mediterranean Ecology,

ProfKarenEsler2It is also an approach this former chair of the SA Association of Botanists takes into her new position as chair of the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology. She took over earlier from Prof Michael Samways, after already serving the Department as among others coordinator of the undergraduate programme in conservation ecology. On a national level, she is enjoying her second term as board chair of the Higher Education Resource Services (HERS-SA), which promotes women in academia.

On the research front she is involved in a large project involving South African and international experts from various disciplines. She brings her interest in landscape ecology and know how about South Africa’s exceptionally rich diversity of bulbs and other geophytes to the package. It’s all in an effort to understand how early man survived in Africa some 165 000 years ago, during an extremely harsh period when other human ancestors across the planet were wiped out. Using their combined knowledge, the interdisciplinary team is now reconstructing how the environment and the plants growing in it looked like at the time.

“We know from genetic evidence that all of us come out of Africa, and from the same small stock of people,” Prof Esler sets the scene. “The confluence of all of the evidence indicates to the Cape where our species survived, among others because of the abundance of seafood available along the coast.”

Archaeological evidence suggests that this diet was supplemented by geophytes and berries.

“That the rich biodiversity of the Cape landscape likely supported our ancestors through tough times is a compelling message for conservation today,” she highlights.

* This article appears in the August edition of the newsletter to alumni of the Faculty of AgriSciences, Stellenbosch University

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