Professor Nigel Barker is Head of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS) at the University of Pretoria (UP). He joined the University six years ago, after he had been at Rhodes University for 18 years. He completed his undergraduate studies and MSc at the University of the Witwatersrand and his PhD at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
Prof Barker’s area of training was plant taxonomy and systematics, with a specialisation in grass taxonomy; he holds an MSc and PhD in this area. “Over the course of my career, I have expanded my interests, and have worked on the systematics of other plant families including daisies, proteas and legumes,” he says.
He is a molecular systematist who uses DNA data to resolve evolutionary relationships in plants and animals. “I then use the data to understand the biogeographic patterns and the historical processes that resulted in the distribution patterns we see today,” Prof Barker explains. “I also use DNA data in population level studies on genetic diversity and phylogeography [the geographic ordination of genotypes] of plants and animals.”
Prof Barker adds that he does research as and when he can. “UP has amazing research facilities, and I have started projects with a wide range of collaborators across the faculty. I have been able to undertake new research direction as a consequence of this.”
He is interested in researching and promoting the cultivation and widespread use of African “orphan” crops. These are crops that are not traded internationally, but rather grown and eaten as part of local diets. Relating to this interest, Prof Barker is the UP representative on the ARUA Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems’ Implementation Committee for Orphan Crops.
Prof Barker also has an interest in mountain biodiversity and ecosystems, particularly on the Great Escarpment (over 15 publications) area and, more recently, the Waterberg mountains in Limpopo. He is the lead investigator on a R4,5 million project to document the biodiversity of these mountains. The project includes researchers from seven universities, a few museums, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) and South African National Parks (SANParks), as well as several local landowners and stakeholders in the region. Prof Barker regards the project as a recent highlight as it has been two years in the planning but was only funded and effectively initiated in 2021.
“My field of research contributes to the betterment of the world because if we are to address just about the whole gamut of Sustainable Development Goals, it is essential to understand life on earth – where it is found, how it evolved, what genes and genomes it possesses, and so forth.”
Apart from colleagues in his own department, Prof Barker collaborates with the Departments of Zoology and Entomology, Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology, and Agricultural Economics, all within the NAS faculty. “I also have an interest in community engagement activities, and am collaborating with the Arts Department in the Faculty of Humanities around the role of art in promoting awareness about plants. As part of this, he and a colleague, Dr Angelique Kritzinger, are supervising a collaboration between plant science and art students for a community engagement module.”
As to who inspired him in his research, Prof Barker says his PhD supervisor, Prof Peter Linder, who lectured at UCT and at the University of Zurich and is now retired, was a huge inspiration and is his academic role model. “He is a globally recognised expert in African flora, and known for his love of plants, Africa and its people; his joie de vivre is amazing.”
Prof Barker hopes to positively impact “the lives of ordinary folk eking out a living on African soil”. “No number of scientific papers in fancy journals can equate to that. I have not fully got there yet – maybe my interests in the Waterberg biodiversity and conservation, or orphan crop work, will be a start,” he says.
“We need to ensure that we leave some part of planet Earth not only better understood but also untouched, or at least protected from the stupidity and greed of Homo sapiens – the supposed ‘wise’ man. We need to use Earth’s resources more effectively by using local plants for food and other applications, such as sources of medicines. That is why my research matters.”
Prof Barker’s advice to young people interested in his research area is to get out into the field and learn to love, identify and understand the ecosystems that surround them. Even urban systems have a form of ecology, he says. “You don’t have to go to the Kruger Park to do this – your backyard or park is enough. Join organisations or clubs that can help you to learn and grow, such as the Botanical Society of South Africa, or a birding club. Download and contribute to apps like iNaturalist, which document our planet’s biodiversity, and make your own contribution to this effort too.”