Freshwater ecologist sets the gold standard for going green

21 October 2013

It's been 10 years since a UCT freshwater ecologist has won the South African Society of Aquatic Scientists Gold Medal, awarded on 'rare occasions' - this time to Emeritus Associate Professor Jenny Day (Biological Sciences).

In 2003 the awardee was Day's colleague Professor Bryan Davies, fellow co-founder of UCT's erstwhile water ecology unit, the Freshwater Research Unit.

The medal is testimony to a lifetime of exceptionally high research in the aquatic sciences and exceptionally valuable contributions to the management, conservation or development of aquatic ecosystems or resources.

It's something to be really proud of, says Day.

"The fact that it's awarded by colleagues makes it more valuable. They understand and appreciate what you do."

The honour has come two years into her retirement and adds to her tally of national awards, which includes 2004's South African Women in Water Award (senior researcher category).

Day's retirement is really quasi-retirement. She's been hard at work on the province's wetlands, on a project with senior research officer Dr Heather Malan to revisit wetlands last sampled and studied 25 years ago. These stretch from Zeekoevlei, where Day's made her new home, to the Agulhas Plain in the east and the Cederberg in the west.

Much has changed in two-and-a-half decades and the pair is attempting to identify the drivers of that change - and how this has affected biodiversity in these vital aquatic lungs.

With water a scare resource on the continent, scholars like Day have a long reach into Africa.

She is a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Lake Victoria Research Initiative, the Inter-University Council for East Africa's regional collaborative and multidisciplinary research programme.

Day has just returned from Uganda, where she has been advising young academics on a wide range of research projects in the Lake Victoria basin.

One of these concerns is the most prudent use of wetlands and maintaining wetland functioning in the face of rice growing and cattle grazing. But an especially intriguing enterprise she's been monitoring is breeding protein-rich insects for human consumption - goggas like termites, locusts and mopane worms.

Between that and supervising her PhD students is a plan to revise the 1998 textbook, Vanishing Waters, co-authored with Davies. It's geared to Southern African students and presents studies of the management and conservation of inland waters such as rivers, dams and wetlands.

The Freshwater Research Unit's closure some years back has been a loss to the study of freshwater ecology, and has left a "huge gap" in water studies at UCT, says Day.

But she's plugging the gap where she can. In the immediate future she'll be stitching together a project to develop master's-level modules for officials in the Department of Water Affairs, and other civil servants.

Story by Helen Swingler.

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