Homegrown Science

18 August 2014
Star trails over Sutherland.
Star trails over Sutherland.

Why is it important for us to understand our local environment – our southern skies, southern oceans and all the flora and fauna in between? And what role should scientific study play in advancing this understanding?

S -33.955533, E 18.460527. These geographical co-ordinates pinpoint a very specific location: the PD Hahn Building, administrative home to some of the 12 departments that make up the UCT Faculty of Science. As precise degrees of longitude and latitude they describe a place balanced on the tip of a continent and poised between two major ocean currents. What they can't tell you is that this is a place surrounded by abundant and diverse animal and plant life and that it has been the site of scientific study for almost two centuries. In the past, as in the present, much of the work that has occurred here has been in the pursuit of a better understanding of this local environment.

Our place in the world

In a world beset by global challenges, however, is it myopic to be focusing on our own backyard?

"Science is universal," says Dean of the Faculty of Science Professor Anton le Roex. "So it's not about the value of African-centred scientific knowledge for its own sake, but rather the ways that knowledge of our local context can help advance global human understanding. By using our geographic location as an advantage we can ensure that we are the leading experts in specific fields. This in turn encourages the perception of Africa as a place of world-class science, and enables us to remain competitive as an educational institution."

So what makes our geographic location distinct in the eyes of science?

Our clear skies

If you have ever been in the Karoo on a cloudless night and looked up, you'll agree that South Africa has some of the clearest skies in the world. The altitude, climate and lack of light pollution lead to conditions that are not just good for amateur stargazing, but also for the kind that requires a radio telescope and seeks answers to how our universe began. In fact, one of the reasons that South Africa has been chosen to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project (which aims to create the world's largest radio telescope, with a collecting area of a million square metres) is the fact that we boast some of the clearest skies in the world.

According to Professor Ren̩e Kraan-Korteweg, head of the Department of Astronomy, the development of the SKA project will have many positive side effects beyond attempting to answer questions about the cosmos. "SKA is not just exciting because of what it might achieve for pure science, but also for what it might mean for everyday life. As a flagship project, it requires the highest level of research infrastructure and computing power Рthis will certainly be an economic and technological driver and a means to create jobs. Just as important, it promotes South Africa as a scientific leader, encourages students to enter the field, and will continue to attract top scientific minds to our shores."

Our biodiversity

Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan is a paleobiologist who "looks at how organisms change over deep time, across millions of years". She is also the first head of one of the faculty's youngest departments: biological sciences, created last year by combining the Departments of Botany and Zoology. "A central theme that binds our research is our unique geographical location, which we think of as a gateway to terrestrial biodiversity, as well as to the Southern and Antarctic Oceans," Chinsamy-Turan explains. "Our department's vision is to be recognised as a leading biodiversity research and teaching department, with strong inter-disciplinary research linkages that understand biodiversity resources in the face of climate change, both locally and globally."

In terms of her research, Chinsamy-Turan also points out that South Africa has the best record of the evolution and spread of mammal-like reptiles, as well as of the early ancestors of dinosaurs, mammals and modern reptiles. "We have a unique fossil record in South Africa, and we can track the evolutionary changes that happened among these creatures over the course of 120 million years through fossils. Everyone knows about our human fossil record in South Africa, but here in Africa we also have an incredible history of life on our planet."

Our record of human evolution

It is this record of human habitation and migration that interests archaeologist Professor Judith Sealy. "I do chemical analyses of materials found at archaeological sites in order to find out what ancient humans and animals were eating. This can tell us about the environment at the time they were alive, and their behaviour.

South Africa has a much longer history of human habitation than elsewhere in the world, with many sites on both our coastlines showing the emergence of modern humans 200 000 years ago. "People often assume that this human habitation was quite static, but it was actually very dynamic. The study of these societies shows how our species emerged, and understanding more about this progression can tell us about our own physiology and psychology."

The diversity of our oceans

Every year more than 500 different species of fish and seafood are harvested from our waters – enough to provide adequate food for our local population, in Professor Colin Atwood's opinion. Atwood, who focuses on wild fishing (as opposed to marine aquaculture), explains that in some cases we have overfished certain species; but that others, such as hake, show increasing population numbers. "The real problem comes with governance. How can we ensure the proper regulation of our fishing industry in a way that protects our natural environment while supporting the livelihoods of smaller fishers?"

Two major currents so close to each other, the cold Benguela Current along the west coast of South Africa and the warm Agulhas Current off the east coast, together with the vast Southern Ocean further south, mean that South Africa occupies a unique oceanographic position. Professor Chris Reason explains that "studying the Agulhas Current and the Southern Ocean is extremely important because of the key role they play in global climate and change."

Our problems

Some of the problems we face as a country, and as a continent, are specific to the developing world, and many other global concerns still have specific consequences when viewed in the context of our status as a developing nation and region. One such example is climate change.

Dr Gina Ziervogel, who studies social and environmental adaptation to climate change, claims that while the steps required to mitigate or adapt to climate change are often seen as being incompatible with development, this is not the case. "Take for example the case of policymakers in Durban who did not support taking steps to adapt to the consequences of climate change in the future. When unseasonal storms disrupted the roll-out of low-cost housing and services to urban areas, they began to see climate change not only as an environmental issue but also as a social one. As scientists we have a responsibility to ensure that these issues get on the agenda."

Human health is another area where our geographic location makes particular diseases relevant. Professor Ed Rybicki from the Biopharming Research Unit in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology works on developing new ways of making vaccines for some of our region's most pressing diseases, such as HIV and HPV [the human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer]. In his words: "Diseases like HPV, HIV and the rotavirus, which causes diarrhoea in babies, affect people disproportionally in developing countries. I do think we have a responsibility to try and find solutions, especially at an institution such as UCT, which is capable of such sophisticated science."

Local problems, local solutions

South Africa remains the country with the highest incidence of those living with HIV in the world, and the enormous cost of the disease, both human and economic, is felt most keenly here. In cases such as this, local science can have an important role to play in creating homegrown solutions.

"Such problems also encourage a multidisciplinary approach, and I believe this is something which has emerged naturally throughout the faculty," says Le Roex.

Professor Janet Hapgood, from the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, researches what form of contraceptives best suit women at risk of contracting HIV. She cautions that while great strides have been made, many challenges to collaboration still exist. "I believe that we must create better incentives and forums to facilitate interdisciplinary partnerships, particularly between faculties and different institutions."

Dr Miguel Lacerda uses statistical models to identify regions in the HIV genome that are important for vaccine design. His work, he says, would not be possible without collaboration between very different kinds of scientists. "The virologists I work with have experimental methods for identifying these regions, but they are expensive and time-consuming. Working together, we can develop and validate predictive models that will save time and money."

Encouraging interdisciplinary approaches at UCT is Professor Robert Morrell's job. He has been tasked with, among other things, promoting African collaboration through the Programme for the Enhancement of Research Capacity. "When we acknowledge that there are different ways of knowing, we have the opportunity of using a variety of approaches and methodologies. This broadens horizons and allows for new questions, the possibility of different answers, and better remedies for sickness. The challenge is to find ways of promoting dialogue between different approaches, and of melding local knowledge with scientific method. The old idea that science presents fixed, immutable facts is changing; and as it does, the realm of possibility is becoming greater."

Associate Professor Merle Sowman from the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences believes that in order to achieve authentic homegrown solutions, the role of local knowledge must also be recognised. "I work with coastal fishing communities and some of my work is about understanding different ways of knowing about the same ecological context, and how we can co-produce useful knowledge in partnership with local communities. I think it is very important that we open ourselves up to understanding the different values and cosmology that local communities may have, especially in a country such as ours, with such a pluralistic legal environment, where up to 50% of people follow customary law. Ideally we should be collaborating together with these communities to set the research agenda."

Proudly African science

Do local scientists have a responsibility to help raise the profile of science on the continent? Professor Bruce Hewitson believes so. As a climatologist he believes it is essential that African scientists educate the international community about our knowledge needs. "We must reverse the process as it has so often happened before, by making sure that African science leads the Africa agenda, rather than simply responding to the priorities set from elsewhere in the world."

To raise the profile of African science is also to invest in students themselves, both to encourage students from diverse demographics to enter the field and also by giving them the opportunity to learn here and then import that knowledge back into their own local contexts. "Something that is very exciting about the current interest in our work, " says Kraan-Korteweg, "is the fact that many students from across the continent now have the opportunity to be at the forefront of astronomy here at UCT, and then to take that knowledge back to their home country."

For the sake of future generations

The principle of intergenerational equity is the idea that we have an obligation to preserve our natural environment and resources for future generations. To do so, we must rely at least in part on scientific knowledge to understand, conserve and protect our biodiversity for the future. Science, as Chinsamy-Turan points out, can give us a sense of perspective: "What is a year or a decade in the scale of geological time? Looking at the past can tell us about the present; but it can also highlight the fragility of life on our planet, because even small changes, over time, can lead to catastrophic events."

The question of how we can best go about being responsible stewards, so that our children's children will still be born into an environment teeming with diversity and abundance, is one that science is well placed to answer.

Open Day Open Day Open Day
Open Day Open Day Open Day

Aspirant scientists at UCT Open Day. Photos by Michael Hammond and Raymond Botha.


Story by Ambre Nicolson.

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