Curiosity and passion for your science is crucial to being a good scientist

Posted on February 19, 2021

NAS Featured scientist: Prof Emma Archer
Associate Professor in Geography in the Department of Geography, Geoinformatics and Meteorology

Q: Why did you choose to study geography?
After completing my undergraduate degree at UCT, for which I did a dual major, I had to choose between continuing with Social Anthropology or Environmental and Geographical Science for my honours degree.  It was a difficult decision, but after going on a third-year field trip at De Hoop Nature Reserve, my mind was made up (which shows how important field trips can be). Wrapped in blankets against the cold, we had to take temperature measurements next to the beach throughout the night. Although that might not sound like fun, it actually was a wonderful experience during which we learned a lot. 

Q: Why is science (including geography) important?
Geography and environmental science help us to answer some of the most important and pressing questions of our time, such as: What is the state of the planet? How is it changing? How do we as scientists measure change? Can this information help us to respond effectively to change? If the information is not useful, how can we make it more useful?

Q: Highlights of your career so far, including your time at UP?
A definite highlight was serving as co-chair on the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Africa Assessment between 2015 and 2018. It was undoubtedly the most taxing task I ever undertook professionally as I had to coordinate more than 100 scientists from around the world trying to reach an agreement on synthesis findings on the state of the environment for the African continent and make such information accessible and usable for policymakers. What a journey that was!

I learned a great deal and was privileged to work with brilliant scientists from Africa and others involved in research pertaining to Africa. To some extent, I think I have forgotten how hard I worked at that time, as I am now again working on the IPBES Sustainable Use assessment and the landmark combined IPBES/IPCC report, which will be released in May 2021.

Q: Please describe a day in the life of Prof Archer. What does the job of a geographer entail?
A: I juggle the three big areas of work—teaching (which includes postgraduate supervision); research/writing and academic service. In my case, academic service includes committee work, service within the Faculty and work on big international assessments. Generally, each day includes some element of each of these tasks and I try very hard to keep a balance between them.

Occasionally I get to spend a whole day or several days in the field (my two main field sites are the southern Waterberg and the eastern Karoo), which is a real treat. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, regular field trips have been out of the question, but hopefully, things will soon return to normal.

Q: What is your current research field/focus? Please give us a glimpse of your most recent research. 
My two main field sites are the southern Waterberg and the eastern Karoo, which are both effectively rangeland areas. Both are sites of commercial or former commercial agriculture and include different types of wildlife reserves (among other activities). At those sites, we address several questions, focused largely on environmental and climate change. How is the climate changing here? How has it changed in the past? What are the major land-use changes? The most critical question is: What does the future hold, and how might local land managers best adapt to future change?

Q: Please elaborate on your involvement as co-chair of the IPBES and as a Coordinating Lead Author on the Forests and Water Assessment of the Global Forestry Expert Panels.
A: As mentioned before, international assessments involve very hard work, but it appears that we tend to forget how tough it is as some of us keep working on them. As regards my co-chairing of the IPBES Africa Assessment, my work on the Forests and Water Assessment also involved synthesising the latest findings on forests and water around the world. I focused on the implications of climate change for forests and water, including how changing forest cover is affected by climate change, but can also affect mitigation and adaptation. This was a much smaller assessment and scientists based right around the world worked very closely together as a highly engaged team. 

Q: As a geographer, what is your view on the importance of wetlands in South Africa and the world? A: Wetlands play a critical role in biodiversity and ecosystem services, and in terms of climate change they are a clear example of how a healthy environment can help us adapt to climate change. 

Climate change affects wetlands in the sense that it affects all wetland ecosystem services through impacts on the hydrological cycle. In arid and semi-arid ecosystems, hotter and drier summers and increased irrigation reduce the supply of water available for wetlands (directly or indirectly).

Wetlands provide us with benefits in terms of climate change in respect of both mitigation and adaptation.

In terms of mitigation,
- wetlands act as a carbon sink;
- degraded wetlands have high carbon emissions;
- such emissions can be mitigated through wetland restoration; and  
- investments in reducing carbon emissions from wetlands can be very cost-effective.

In terms of adaptation,
- wetlands lessen the impact of extreme events;
- they help to absorb floods and regulate water supply; 
- they can serve as freshwater reserves in dry areas; and
- critically, coastal wetlands protect ecosystems and settlements from storms and rising sea levels.

Q: What are the qualities of a good scientist?
A: Curiosity and a passion for your field of research are absolutely essential. In my field, a key skill is also the ability to drive on the worst dirt roads!

Q: Advice to women and girls interested in a career in science
A:  It is very possible for women to have successful scientific careers, but they need good support and good mentors. Mentors—either male or female—play a critical role in providing support and guidance. Choose them carefully.

Q: What words/beliefs do you live by?
I believe in trying to find a balance—the Middle Way that Buddhism speaks about. I do not always get it right, but I will keep on trying.

- Author Martie Meyer
Published by Martie Meyer

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