New Dean takes interdisciplinary approach at UP’s Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences

Posted on November 12, 2019

Professor Barend Erasmus was recently appointed Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS) at the University of Pretoria (UP). He succeeds Professor Jean Lubuma, who had been in the position since March 2015 and is now retiring.

“All the resources that humans use are either dug out of the ground or grown in the soil,” says Prof Erasmus. “The University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences has world-class capabilities to support both, and I look forward to unlocking its full potential.”

Prior to this appointment, Prof Erasmus was Director of the Global Change Institute (GCI) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), where he spent most of his working career. Before that he was a lecturer at the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at Wits, where he was subsequently promoted to professor and the Exxaro Chair in Global Change and Sustainability.

Together with colleagues from the Global Change Institute, he recently co-authored an international report commissioned by the United Nations on the state of global land degradation and restoration.

Prof Erasmus is a UP alumnus who obtained his PhD (Zoology), BScHons (Zoology) and BSc (Zoology) from UP. “My doctoral degree at UP was the first assessment of climate change impacts on biodiversity in South Africa, and the core paper from that study continues to be relevant in international literature,” he says.

The academic has co-authored several strategic documents on climate change, space science and global change for national government, and serves on advisory bodies for the Endangered Wildlife Trust, the National Business Initiative and the African Climate Leadership Programme.

He emphasises the importance of interdisciplinary work, and says he became interested in problems that could be addressed only by way of various disciplines. “I was fortunate to have graduate supervisors, and later on academic mentors, that recognised both the opportunities and pitfalls of interdisciplinary work,” he says. “Looking back, the additional applied mathematics that I took at undergraduate level gave me additional tools for complex problems. Much of my own research combines on-the-ground fieldwork with remote sensing technologies to address matters of sustainable resource use. I have a particular passion and interest in southern African savannah systems, and the people that live in them. A golden thread throughout my work is a systems perspective.”

Mathematics and science, he says, lie at the heart of many of the interventions required for a more sustainable future. “For that reason the faculty will continue to implement and pilot innovative teaching and learning interventions to ensure that our graduates are at the cutting edge of interdisciplinary scholarship and practice,” Prof Erasmus says. “Contextualising maths and science as part of the solution, and linking foundational training to problems of food security, climate change, biotechnology and natural resources sustainability provides an opportunity for exciting and compelling training programmes.”

Interestingly, Prof Erasmus feels strongly that humanity needs a new type of scientist. “In addition to the disciplinary experts already active in the faculty, we need more scientists that are comfortable to move between different world views and epistemologies, and that are agile in their search for new opportunities.”

He also has great praise for the expertise in the faculty, which provides key pieces of the puzzle to respond to the challenges facing society. “I want to enable and amplify interdisciplinary research programmes so that we develop the capacity to respond meaningfully to global change challenges,” Prof Erasmus says. “This capacity lies in how disciplinary depth supports interdisciplinary endeavours, and in how we work with students to navigate cross-cutting disciplinary spaces.”                                                                                        

Prof Erasmus – who is also an avid sportsperson who has excelled in fencing, winning silver and bronze medals at the 1998 Commonwealth Fencing Championships – also underlines the importance of constantly evolving. “In the same way that we did not consider sustainability science or food security, or climate change adaptation as career paths 20 years ago, we need to ensure that our graduates remain relevant through their thinking and problem-solving skills, independent of the domain-specific challenges facing them.” 

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