#02 2021

Dr Rob Skelton receives highest postdoctoral research rating

In March this year, Rob Skelton, a Research Fellow at SAEON’s Fynbos Node, was awarded a P-rating by the National Research Foundation (NRF). This rating is typically awarded to fewer than seven people a year across all disciplines. 

P-rated researchers are considered likely to become future international leaders in their respective fields, based on exceptional potential demonstrated in research performance and output during doctoral or early postdoctoral careers.

“The boss said we could work remotely.” Rob measuring plant water status with a pressure chamber in the Cederberg. (Photo: Abri de Buys)

Rob (right) and MSc student Daniel Buttner collect samples for in-situ water potential recordings of Pappea capensis. (Photo: Alastair Potts)

Rob responded remotely to the following questions for SAEON eNews:

Q         What made you decide to specialise in botany? 

A          There were two main factors that influenced my decision to follow this path. The first is the nature of the field – plants are remarkably diverse, and it is a wonderful challenge to try to make sense of this diversity. Secondly, I was lucky enough to be influenced by some excellent role models: my father is a biologist who got me interested in the natural world, and then I had some excellent lecturers in undergraduate who made botany seem like something worth studying.

Q         Receiving a P-rating from the NRF is a major achievement for a young scientist. What does it mean to you personally? 

A          I consider it a great honour to have my work recognised as being of a high standard by the NRF and I am immensely proud of having been awarded a P-rating. My career – like any other – has had ups and downs, and it is good to celebrate these moments. I also consider the rating to be more than a reflection on the past few years; it is also a motivating signal to push on and pay something back to the people who have invested in me. So, the rating also creates a sense of personal responsibility for the next few years.

Q         You have always excelled in your chosen field of study, scooping national and international awards and accolades for your work. Together with your P-rating, these must count as important milestones on your way to becoming a future leader in your field. Can you tell us more about your career and your aspirations? 

A          I have been fortunate to have had my work recognised at various stages. The earliest stages of my journey were all about opening my eyes to the diversity of plants and how they work. For my MSc I investigated how leaves function and found that hairs on the surfaces serve as a natural sunscreen during hot, dry conditions when evaporative cooling is not an option. The paper that emerged from this work was awarded Best Paper by a Young Scientist by the Australian Journal of Botany, which was a great boost.

I then began to think more deeply about drought physiology and was fortunate to work with an incredible supervisor and academic mentor, Dr Adam West from the University of Cape Town (UCT), for my PhD. This work produced a framework for quantifying plant drought responses in diverse ecosystems, like South Africa’s fynbos. It was a tremendous honour and personal boost to have this work recognised by the South African Association of Botanists as being the best PhD in 2014.

Following my PhD, I accepted an NRF Abroad Scholarship, which enabled me to travel to Australia to work with Dr Tim Brodribb, another leader in the field of physiology, at the University of Tasmania. After spending a few years “down under” I moved to Berkeley, California to take up a position as a Postgraduate Researcher at the University of California Berkeley with Dr Todd Dawson and Dr David Ackerly. After five years in the wilderness, I realised it was time to return home and I am now working as a Research Fellow with the South African Environmental Observation Network based in Cape Town.

I aspire to become a life-long research scientist and to keep challenging myself to think more deeply about the natural world and about how plants work. There is so much to discover! If along the way I can encourage or provoke others to do the same, I will consider this a tremendous outcome.

Q         Your postdoctoral research has taken you to the University of California Berkeley in the United States and the University of Tasmania in Australia. What value did these international experiences add to your skills and expertise as a researcher? 

A          These international experiences were transformative in many ways. In my opinion it is impossible to overstate how valuable it is for a researcher to spend time in another laboratory interacting with people from different schools of thought and backgrounds. More specific to my experience, I was fortunate to spend time with world-leading experts in plant hydraulics and community ecology, and I picked up many novel tools and tricks of these disciplines, which I am applying in my current work here in South Africa.

I also gained valuable insight into how research operates at a very fundamental level in different countries, and I am hopeful that these insights may prove useful for how we approach research in South African institutions.

In his spare time Rob enjoys spending time outdoors “connecting with nature”, preferably in remote areas such as the Channel Islands (USA), and with his wife, Julia Harris. (Photo: Rob Skelton)

Q         As a Future Leader of African Independent Research (FLAIR) Fellow conducting research in the field of plant physiological ecology, what are your research objectives and key outputs?  

A          The broad objective of the current research is to explore the diversity of plant physiological responses to water stress more fully to improve predictions of the ecological impacts of drought. Despite recent advances in our theoretical frameworks that capture the major elements of how a general plant, like a woody tree, responds to drought, there are many fundamental questions that remain unresolved. For example, what is the role and extent of internal stored water in maintaining plant function during dry spells? In addition, there many other types of plant other than woody trees out there that we currently do not fully understand. Southern Africa is rich in these unique plants, which makes this a great place to explore these topics.

One key output of my research is a quantitative trait-based framework for describing and predicting how plants respond to future droughts. We aim to be able to predict which plants are likely to be impacted by a drought and to what extent. In addition, we are developing the tools that enable us to rapidly quantify such responses.

Q         Why did you opt for this specific research? 

A          The natural world is facing huge pressures from human activity, both directly and indirectly. Humans seem intent on playing out a major global experiment in which we manipulate the atmospheric composition without knowing the ecological impacts. Already scientists are documenting increased rates of drought-induced tree die-back, and this should be alarming considering that many people and communities rely on natural products for a living! To me, this underscores the timely importance of understanding how plants are likely to respond to possible future conditions.  

Q         What are the socio-economic benefits of your research? 

A          The potential scientific, economic and ecological benefits of the research for South African communities are considerable. Quantifying how drought-induced changes to plant functionality affects long-term plant performance and viability reduces uncertainty over the capacity of natural ecosystems to cope with water stress, enabling more accurate and reliable predictions of plant health and productivity. In addition, the development of innovative technologies to monitor plant health – including miniature external sap flow gauges – may well lead to new commercial products. Overall, this research is perfectly aligned with South Africa’s research priorities in areas of long-term environmental change, for enduring scientific and societal benefit.

Q         You have an impressive list of fellowships and grants. Please tell us more about these and their specific benefits for/impact on your research. 

A          Funding is essential to keeping research programmes afloat and to enable scientists to pursue their topics. I have already mentioned how crucial the NRF Postdoctoral Abroad Scholarship was in shaping my career, because it allowed me to spend several years in a leading lab in my field. The France-Berkeley Grant to “Make Plant Hydraulics Great Again” was a collaboration between myself, colleagues at UC Berkeley and French scientists to work on an aspect of plant hydraulics that had split the field. I am not certain that we succeeded in the (overly ambitious) stated goal of making plant hydraulics great, but we did end up forming a fruitful collaboration that culminated in us publishing a paper on oak hydraulics that I am very proud of!

Q         You have gained wide-ranging expertise in technology relevant to your research. You also have expertise in complex data analysis using various statistical techniques and packages implemented in R. How important is it for researchers in a field like botany to be tech-savvy? How has this benefited your research? 

A          The type of research that I (and most of my colleagues) conduct is possibly a far cry from a common perception of what botany is all about! Plant physiology or ecology involves some wonderfully sophisticated instruments and the analytical tools are advancing all the time. I have had to design and program many of the instruments that I use in my research myself, mostly because they are either prohibitively expensive (because they are made overseas) or because they did not exist! Doing so has been challenging, but incredibly rewarding because it has enabled me to grapple with exactly what I am measuring! I should add, though, that I do also enjoy fossicking about in search of rare and unusual plants!

Q         You obviously have excellent science communication skills, having published several first-authored papers in top peer-reviewed scientific journals, as well as many popular-science articles for magazines and your blogsite, Wondrous Biographies (https://wondrousbiographies.com/). How important is it for scientists to communicate their work to the general public? 

A          It is critical for scientists to engage the public in what we are researching and to communicate the results clearly and lucidly. This is true not only because the taxpayers are the rightful recipients of publicly funded research, but also because the research very often has tangible benefits to society that may otherwise go unappreciated. The blogsite is one way to communicate my research, and the response to the articles is always very positive. I only wish that I had more time to write more articles, because there is so much happening in the world of natural science that I think people would care about if only they knew about it!

Q         Did Covid-19 have a major impact on your international participation and involvement, or were you able to maintain your international partnerships and participation remotely? 

A        Covid-19 has had a major negative impact on the availability of funding for research. Many researchers at my career stage are highly dependent on Fellowships and funding from national and international bodies, like the Royal Society or the NRF. Unfortunately, during the current Covid situation, some governments have taken the drastic step of reducing their science budgets, which I feel is misguided because of the benefits of scientific research. Covid-19 has also had a negative impact on international partnerships and engagement. Although some conferences and events moved online or have been postponed to 2022, many more, including public engagement events, had to be cancelled altogether. Engaging with colleagues at international conferences is essential for generating new ideas and sharing new technologies and findings, and a surprising amount of this knowledge sharing takes place outside of the formal proceedings, so it is a huge setback to have not been able to attend any conferences in person over the past year or so.  

Q         Your hectic schedule must leave little time for relaxation. How do you relax? Do you have any favourite hobbies or pastimes? 

A          I enjoy being active outdoors for the physical and mental break that this provides. For a long time I played ultimate frisbee, which enhanced my life in so many intangible ways! More recently, I have taken up mountain biking and I take walking super seriously! I also enjoy reading.  

Q         Any specific message for young scientists starting a career? 

A          Science is the best process that humans have yet developed to provide insight into an apparently magical, yet very real world. It is a difficult process to master and few get to make a career doing it, but it is also incredibly rewarding if you are fortunate enough to succeed, so keep at it!