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Basics lead to breakthroughs

- Erna van Wyk

Meet Professor Frances Duncan, the new Head of the School of Animals, Plants and Environmental Sciences (APES).

Working in an institution where researchers are “allowed to ask the questions they want to ask” is what has attracted Duncan to Wits University some 20 years ago.

“Wits has always been an exciting place to be, grounded in a research culture where you can still study the basics, which is important because big scientific breakthroughs are made through basic research,” says Professor Frances Duncan, who officially took over the reins on 1 August 2014.

Duncan did her PhD at Wits and returned later as an academic and researcher studying the physiology of insects and specifically the methods of breathing and respiration in insects and how this help them adapt to different environments.

Ever changing and adapting herself, she soon realises that she quite enjoy “managing” as well and later became chair of Biological Sciences. “In this position I enjoyed getting things sorted, dealing with people and trying to get things done. It is a different challenge to being an academic and that excited me.” This is also what has informed her decision to apply for her new position.

“I’m inheriting a great School that is teaching-intensive and the lecturers are excited about teaching. We also have great researchers that are passionate about their research and are doing exciting work. I would like to raise the research profile of the School in the country and make APES the school-of-choice for postgraduate students,” she says.

“We are developing Aquatic Sciences and trying to turn it into a Faculty programme. APES are already running a few inter-Faculty programmes such as the interdisciplinary MSc in Environmental Sciences. Cross-Faculty courses include collaboration with the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment.”

She says the School is also proactive in using new technologies in teaching, and is researching and developing technologies around Big Data, especially for the study in Ecology.

Duncan’s vision for the School is “to be the best it can be. Together with the School’s teaching staff we are critically evaluating what has worked or not in the past, and are developing a strategic plan that will set clear plans and goals for key issues and teaching programmes that the School would want to achieve over this period.”

Being a Head of School, though, does not take away the responsibility of being a researcher.

Duncan will continue her research by also going back to where she started her career – studying social insects such as ants and termites. “There are very few people working on termites in South Africa and I am looking at termite biodiversity. I have always been interested in insects although when I was young it was not the direction I thought I was going to go into.

“I went the normal route of thinking about marine life and big mammals, but soon realise how fascinating insects are. They have such different physiologies; they are in every environment, except for the deep sea; and there is such a variety of them. So compared to mammals, insects are so much more exciting because of the variety, they affect humans and are part of our lives, and yet we know so little about them.”

One of her students is doing research on tick survival under water. “We have seen that ticks can live for about 15 days under water! So if you flush a tick down the toilet, it can come back! They are really great at holding their breaths,” Duncan laughs.

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