Prof Barker strives to cure 'plant blindness'

Posted on October 09, 2015

“I would like the new School of Plant and Crop Sciences to do its best to cure ’plant blindness!’ Plants feed the world, make oxygen, enhance our aesthetic needs, and yet most of us take them for granted – a ’disease’ known as 'plant blindness'. This is a topic that has been gaining increased attention.” These are the words of the newly appointed Head of the School of Plant and Crop Sciences at the University of Pretoria (UP), Prof Nigel Barker.

Prof Barker took up his new position at UP on 1 October 2015, after being a professor in Botany at Rhodes University. He completed his PhD at the University of Cape Town in 1995 and his research interests lie in plant and animal biodiversity, systematics, phylogeography and biogeography (including floristics and faunistics) and conservation.

“I find the creation of the School, and the various plant-based disciplines that fall within it, to be a very exciting opportunity to take plant science (in its broadest context) to a new level at a national, continental and even global level. I think it is rare to have a group of researchers that collectively, can study the plant and ecosystem so holistically – from aspects of soils to plant growth, functioning, and ecological interactions (which include diseases),” said Prof Barker.

He emphasised that the aim would be “to break down the artificial barriers that names (be it departmental, subject or discipline) create, and move forward in a creative and collaborative manner, seeking out new multi- / trans- disciplinary research opportunities, and to grow the School's research profile. From what I have seen and heard to date, UP is very well equipped and there are numerous assets which I would like to see being used and developed in this new venture.”

Prof Barker admits that “the challenge currently for me is to get to know the staff and students much better, and to understand the support structures in place at UP that can be used to foster and support their growth and activities. I am also eager to seek out new links and collaborations across other departments on the campus, and to further enhance the image of botany/plant science among all the UP constituencies.”

His research productivity is considerable. To date he has published 133 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals and five book chapters and he holds a rating of C1 from the South African National Research Foundation. He has also been involved in 28 MSc and 17 PhD student research projects, either as supervisor or as co-supervisor. Prof Barker is also an Associate Editor for TAXON, the official journal of the International Association of Plant Taxonomists (April 2010 to present) and was a member of the Editorial Advisory Committee of the journal, Australian Systematic Botany.

Some of the awards bestowed on him over the years include the Rhodes University Vice Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award in 2000, recipient of the 1999 FRD President’s Award (Foundation for Research and Development, now the National Research Foundation (NRF)) and recipient of a short-term visiting grant from the Royal Society, London for collaborative research with an institution in the UK (University of Reading) during 1997. He also received the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney, Research Fellowship for the 1995-1996 and 1996-1997 financial years.

As a renowned botanist, it is also not surprising that Prof Barker has collected over 2 200 plant specimens, the majority of which are housed in the National Herbarium in Pretoria (PRE). The rest are housed in the Bolus Herbarium (BOL) of the University of Cape Town and the Selmar Schonland Herbarium (GRA).


- Author Martie Meyer

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