Study of biological rule-breakers wins zoology researcher prestigious P-rating

05 August 2002
IT WAS Dr Justin O'Riain's first glimpse of hundreds of small, pink, virtually hairless mammals that began his fascination with naked mole-rats and social mammals in general, research that recently won him a prestigious President's Award, or P-rating, from the National Research Foundation (NRF).

O'Riain, a senior lecturer in zoology, is the second UCT researcher to get a P-rating this year, following Dr Maano Ramutsindela from the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences. The President's Award is made annually to a few top young researchers (under the age of 35) with exceptional potential, and who are recognised by the international community as prospective leaders in their fields of science, engineering and technology at South African tertiary training institutions.

"In my third year of zoology at UCT I was introduced, as part of a practical on mammals, to naked mole-rats by the mother of mole-rat research herself, Professor Jenny Jarvis," O'Riain said. It was fascination at first sight, a colony of what at first glance appeared to be a legion of sabre-toothed sausages, having more in common with a bustling insect society than any mammal he had ever seen.

"I was astounded that natural selection could have produced such an unusual mammal, and then amazed to learn that it routinely inbreeds, cannot regulate its body temperature, and that a cantankerous queen rules the roost with an iron fist to ensure that she is the sole breeder and decides who are to be the lucky few lads that get to consort with her," O'Riain added.

There are also other compelling reasons to study them. "Naked mole-rats are biological rule-breakers and almost every new avenue of research we follow takes on an uncharted journey away from mammalian stereotypes. The creatures are a wonderful example of what strong selection pressure in an unusual niche can produce and they force us to think outside the brackets of normality."

O'Riain's CV hints at an internationalism (he has an Irish surname but was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and speaks French) that begs closer investigation. "I have an Irish father, who with my English mother shared an interest in travelling, which accounts for the Nigerian birth certificate," he explained. "The French was a consequence of an 18-month postdoc in Paris and I hasten to add that while I can speak French, so too, can a parrot speak English!"

Educated in Zimbabwe and Grahamstown, O'Riain obtained his BSc and PhD at UCT and his postdocs in Cambridge and Paris, where he was offered an attractive research job. It offered job security in a stable economy with minimal crime and the freedom to pursue his research without being "swamped with undergraduate teaching".

"There were those who tapped their heads in unsubtle fashion when I opted for the challenges of South Africa and UCT, but I am happy to be putting something back into the system that shaped me," he reflected.

A keen outdoor person and traveller, O'Riain is determined to balance research productivity with his personal life. "I have heard some sad stories about previous P-rated academics and most of them involve the phrase 'burn-out'. I have never been a prolific publisher and doubt whether the P-rating will change this trend. However, I do greatly relish being able to realise my research objectives.

"I view a P-rating as an opportunity to put down some deep research roots which might hinder short-term productivity, but will hopefully lead to a long-term sustainable research platform capable of withstanding the unpredictability of funding in a developing country while producing papers of the highest international standards."

O'Riain has published in three of the top international journals (Nature and Science and the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Science). He is well travelled, as one might expect from a naturalist, and has visited some pretty exotic places.

"After handing in my PhD I decided to put the 'zoo' back into my career and to travel for six months overland to Uganda, taking in as many wild parts of Africa as I could. Nothing had prepared me for the Upper Bigo Bogs in the Ruwenzori Mountains. Giant Alpine vegetation below the snowline on the African equator made for a truly surreal world of contradictions that would have provided rich picking for writers such as Tolkien." Of course bumping into mountain gorillas and mole-rats en route was an added bonus.

He also spent 18 months in the Kalahari studying meerkats, another social mammal, as part of his post-doctoral studies.

What would his alternative career have been if not a zoologist?

"As clichéd as it sounds for a zoologist, managing a game farm. The combined skills of managing animals, people and machinery would have been a worthy challenge."

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