Professor Donald Cowan honoured with Royal Society of South Africa lifetime achievement award

Posted on October 25, 2019

Director of Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics at the University of Pretoria, Professor Donald Cowan has been honoured with a lifetime achievement by the Royal Society of South Africa.

Prof Cowan was awarded the John FW Herschel Medal for his outstanding work in ‘a field of research that straddles disciplines’.

Reacting to the award, Prof Cowan said he was humbled. “Getting an award is recognition from one’s peers and therefore it’s an honour and privilege. I don’t get very emotional about it, but it’s nevertheless an honour. And if you look at the people through the history of the Royal Society who have received this award, it’s quite a glittering list of the best scientists in the country. So to be positioned in any small way amongst them, is an honour.

“The point I have always made is that the honour might be given to an individual, but there are a lot of people behind that individual.  That’s the way our system operates. Multiple post-docs, PhDs, collaborators, colleagues, masters’ students, honours students, have all played their part and all of whom are important,” he said.

The Royal Society of South Africa (RSSAf) is one of South Africa’s premier ‘learned societies’, focusing on the sciences. The RSSAf, which was formed in 1908, works to foster and advance pure and applied science in South Africa through science education, by facilitating the exchange and development of scientific ideas and knowledge, especially in the interdisciplinary context; recognising and rewarding excellence in research and scholarship; promoting international contacts and collaboration; and providing independent expert advice on significant issues that require scientific analysis.

Professor Donald Cowan

This journey for Prof Cowan, which has been littered with glittering achievements such as this award, an NRF A1 rating, election as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand to name just a few, started off in a farm, in his native New Zealand where an interest as a teenager in his surroundings and how the world works led him to a career in science.

“I became particularly interested in science during my high school years. I was introduced to chemistry early on and decided I that I really was fascinated by chemicals and the way reactions happened. And growing up on a farm, I was interested, as was my entire family, in the natural environment. Slowly, those two came together. My interest in chemistry led me to biochemistry and that led me into aspects of environmental biochemistry. My fascination, which has lasted through my entire career, in microbes in extreme environments has led me to my current discipline of environmental microbial ecology,” Prof Cowan explained.

Prof Cowan’s work has focussed on a variety of extreme environments. It began with his PhD studies of extremely hot environments:  the boiling pools in Rotorua, New Zealand, and this interest spread to other parts of the world. Nearly 20 years ago, he had the opportunity to join a research group working on the other end of the temperature scale, in Antarctica, and he has been working on Antarctic soil microbiology ever since.  Ten years ago he started a desert microbiomics programme in the Namib Desert, where he, his team and his national and international collaborators have addressed fundamental questions relating to microbiology in extreme climatic conditions.

One of his principal motivators to work hard and contribute meaningfully to developing new scientific knowledge through research, is fascination.

“Fascination. It’s very hard to define but I see it in all my colleagues who are research active. We’re all fascinated by something. We have the desire to understand things. There are many ways that such fascination is expressed and exploited. Some people want to develop their research into commercial products, some people want to develop processes with a particular applied objective in mind. Others are just curious about the systems and processes that exist on this planet.

“I believe I fall into that bracket: Most of my work is not particularly applied. I’m most interested in understanding some small part of the natural world,” he said.

Over the course of his career Prof Cowan has trained and graduated 44 PhD students and 52 MSc students. As the Director of the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics, he currently supervises or co-supervises a research team of two research fellows, six postdoctoral researchers, six PhDs and two MScs.

With everything he has achieved and is yet to achieve, when quizzed what advice he has for young, upcoming researchers, he said, “It’s critical for a young researcher to ask the good questions. As a young biochemistry researcher, I hadn’t the faintest idea of how I was going to get to where I needed, but the same rules apply in any science discipline. To do good Science, you need good questions. And good questions are actually the hardest things to devise. Once you’ve got good questions, you can apply the science you know to those questions and that leads to the accepted products which are part of career development. If you’ve have mediocre, naïve or boring questions, the products of your research may also be mediocre, naïve and boring,” he said.

- Author Masego Panyane

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