Dr Rosalie Tostevin, who heads up the Ancient Life and Environments (ALE) Lab in the Department of Geological Sciences, is the latest University of Cape Town (UCT) researcher to be awarded a prestigious P-rating from the National Research Foundation (NRF), proving that this geologist does indeed rock.
The NRF ratings are a key driver in the statutory body’s aims to build a “globally competitive science system in South Africa” and provide a valuable tool for benchmarking the country’s researchers against the best in the world. There are five categories (A, B, C, P and Y) and all are allocated based on a researcher’s recent outputs and impact, as perceived by international peer reviewers.
A P-rating, which stands for Prestigious Award and is also known as the NRF President’s Award, is assigned to researchers (usually under the age of 35) who have held a PhD or equivalent qualification for less than five years at the time of application. P-rated researchers are, according to the NRF, considered “likely to become future international leaders in their respective fields, on the basis of exceptional potential demonstrated in research performance and output during doctoral and/or early postdoctoral careers”.
“It is an honour to have my past research and future potential recognised by colleagues in my field.”
When Dr Tostevin was informed about the rating by Professor Sue Harrison, UCT’s deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation, she was pleasantly surprised. “We spend a lot of time waiting for news in academia. It always arrives when you least expect it.
“It is an honour to have my past research and future potential recognised by colleagues in my field,” she said.
Tostevin is passionate about her area of research and was drawn to it because of her desire to understand the conditions that give rise to complex life and diverse ecosystems.
“Exploring our long history can help us assess how delicate or resilient ecosystems are over long timescales,” she said.
The geology lecturer described her research as the study of interactions between life and the environment in “deep time”, meaning millions to billions of years ago. Because the earth was so different then, Tostevin likened it to “studying an alien planet”.
Her research entails reconstructing conditions from the physical and chemical traces left behind in the rocks and involves “careful detective work”. Understanding even the basic aspects of the environment, such as temperature or oxygen levels, can be a challenge.
But Tostevin is always up for the challenge and in the past year has led field trips to the Transvaal Supergroup (which records the rise of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere as well as “wonderful early microbial communities”) and to the Nama Group, which records some of the earliest animal fossils. And with South Africa being home to one of the finest geological records on the planet, there is still plenty of work to be done.
“There is still a huge amount to discover,” she said.
Tostevin’s journey towards her P-rating features numerous brilliant women mentors. During her master’s, PhD and postdoctoral studies and research, she has enjoyed the support of Professor Rosalind Rickaby (University of Oxford), Professor Rachel Wood (The University of Edinburgh) and Dr Sasha Turchyn (University of Cambridge) who collectively taught her that “a scientist can be simultaneously determined, smart and kind”.
“I am grateful to have such supportive colleagues at UCT.”
Fellow researcher extraordinaire Dr Robyn Pickering has also been a constant in Tostevinʼs support network, mentoring her through her first year as a lecturer and always encouraging her to “aim high”.
“I am grateful to have such supportive colleagues at UCT,” Tostevin said.
The geology department might be small in size but they are big on celebrating one another’s successes and are a close-knit unit. Now, Tostevin’s growing research group forms her closest support team.
“There is no greater satisfaction than watching a new generation of promising students develop a passion for the same field as you. When a student knocks on my door to chat about their data, that’s the best part of my day,” she said.
With her research and research group, teaching and her work on translating the geological record into isiXhosa, Tostevin is firmly on track to becoming an international leader in her field and is well placed to impart advice on what it takes to achieve success as a researcher.
Asked to share her thoughts about how to succeed, she said aspiring researchers need “curiosity, drive and, when required, the confidence to go your own way”.
“Have faith that if you keep pushing, you will break through.”
“At times you can’t see the end point, your experiments go wrong or your results aren’t what you expected. But have faith that if you keep pushing, you will break through.”
She added that the hardest part can be believing in oneself, particularly as academia is “full of roadblocks and rejections” and the academic job market is “brutal and there is a huge element of luck and privilege”.
“Seek out advisors who you get along with and who treat you with respect – this is far more important than their publication record or reputation,” she said.
And lastly, Tostevin said, while the rating system is focused on research outputs, there are valuable ways to contribute to the academic community that may not be recognised in this way.
Teaching, outreach and being a good mentor are just as important.
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