Science is almost like a calling

Posted on March 21, 2021

NAS Featured scientist: Prof Paxie W Chirwa (SAFCOL Forest Chair and Director of the Forest Science Postgraduate Programme, Department of Plant and Soil Sciences)

Q: Why did you choose to study Forest Science?
I was always interested in Science in high school especially Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics. I never liked dissections of insects/animals though, and so medicine or Vet Med was not an option. After high school, I worked as a trainee in a Soil Science Analytical Lab at a Forest Research Institute where I was exposed to the link between plants and growth resources vis-à-vis soil nutrients water and light. After a year, I got a scholarship to study Forest Science at Bangor Wales, UK.

Q: Why is Science, (including Forest Science) important?
Science is important because it answers the questions of why things (animals, plants, material) respond in a certain way to some stimuli. Thus understanding the processes and/or drivers of these help scientists to provide interventions to either improve or manipulate such processes depending on the desired outcome. This is the essence of the different scientific fields where we hypothesise and seek to prove or disprove our hypotheses.

Q: Why are forests/forestry important? Why do we need to observe the International Day of Forests on 21 March? 
Forests are generally taken for granted, usually, in my travels around the world; people consider them as a God-given infinite resource at the disposal of everyone. However, the basic science of photosynthesis in a plant provides the most desired products to the human being ‘oxygen’, which in this Covid-19 pandemic one easily understands its value. Secondly, the process of harnessing carbon into the organic form by the plant is the whole essence of ‘carbon sequestration’, which is currently absolutely very important in reducing carbon in the atmosphere, the driver of climate change.

Trees or indeed plants, in general, are therefore termed ‘the lungs of the earth’ for this very reason of being able to ameliorate the atmosphere, thereby mitigating the negative impacts of climate change. Celebrating International Forest Day, therefore, reminds the world of the importance of forests in providing ecosystem services as partly elaborated above.

Q: Highlights of your career so far, including your time at UP? 
After working for many years in research and development, I eventually gravitated towards academia, first as an adjunct lecturer and later as a full-time lecturer. Joining academia meant sharing with students how the basic biophysical sciences they learn in class link with their everyday life in a biological ecosystem. The highlights of my career have been to see the students who seemingly come with little knowledge in research at postgraduate level become excellent scientists able to develop critical thinking, and seeing some become professors in their own right in other institutions on the African continent. The highlight at UP was in 2020 when despite the Covid-19 pandemic, I had seven PhD students graduating and co-edited a seminal book on important Zambezian vegetation, miombo - “Miombo Woodlands in a Changing Environment: Securing the Resilience and Sustainability of People and Woodlands. Springer, Cham.

Q: Give us a glimpse of your most recent research
My current research aims to understand the nexus of the forests, people’s livelihoods and maintenance of ecosystem services. Currently, I am working in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve in Limpopo. The purpose of this research is to evaluate the link between provisioning ecosystem service and tree species diversity in traditional agroforestry landscape.

Q: Describe a day in the life of Prof Chirwa?
First is meditation and prayer to the Creator in appreciation of the life and family I have. If I am not in the field with my students for research, the morning in a virtual world starts with catching up on work-related emails. If there is teaching, then additional preparations before delivery of lectures for my modules. If there are no management virtual meetings, I consult with my postgraduate students who are at different levels of their M and D degrees. Internationally, I also attend virtual scientific meetings and conferences. The evening follows with a rewind of the day with at least a 3 to 5 km walk. Occasionally, there are also evening sessions with students depending on time zone differences on the African continent.

Q: What qualities does a good scientist need?
Science is almost like a calling in the sense that it is not the best-paying job! However, it is the most rewarding in terms of satisfaction. There is thus a need for dedication and being meticulous with the design and investigation/data collection. In addition, honesty is a hallmark of a good scientist because the findings in some cases can have a serious impact on life, policies and the environment.

Q: What words/beliefs do you live by?
I believe that everything in nature is because of biophysically driven processes. The unexplainable things in science are from the ‘higher being’, and who they call that one is a personal choice.

Lastly, even at the highest level of academia, one learns new things all the time. I have learned a lot even from my students.

- Author Martie Meyer
Published by Martie Meyer

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