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.
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.
SAEON eNews is the bimonthly online newsletter of the South African Environmental Observation Network.
SAEON serves as a national platform for detecting, translating and predicting environmental change through scientifically designed observation systems and research.