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Sellschop awards aid Wits research goals

- By Kemantha Govender

Grassy ecosystems cover approximately 70% of sub-Saharan Africa and these systems are known to be exposed to frequent fires as well as a large number and variety of indigenous herbivores. Sally Archibald, one of four recipients of the 2015 Friedel Sellschop Awards, will use the funds from the award to investigate the evolutionary response of tropical grasses to grazing.

The other winners for 2015 are Associate Professors Charis Harley from the School of Computational and Applied Mathematics; Warren Maroun from the School of Accountancy; and Dr Craig Sheridan from the School of Chemical and Mechanical Engineering.

Archibald, an Associate Professor in the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, said that substantial progress in understanding how particular grass traits can both increase flammability and fire tolerance has been made.

“It is becoming clear that these adaptations are found in certain branches in the grass family, and that the evolution of these grass clades has resulted in novel environments globally,” said Archibald.

“In fact, as these ecosystems spread eight million years ago there was an associated increase in the amount of fire globally, and a radiation of large grazing mammals.”

“Grazing, like fire, consumes above-ground biomass but grazing happens more locally, and has very different impacts on plants. The grass species found in landscapes with high grazer numbers are very different from those that burn frequently,” she said.

Archibald is also researching how fire-prone and grazing-tolerant ecosystems interact, aiming to investigate the ideal proportion of these systems to have in a rangeland and conservation areas.

She said that the Sellschop award will enable her to expand this work to an evolutionary context.

“I will be collecting data assessing which of the grass traits promote grazing or palatability and which traits allow grasses to persist under heavy grazing, or grazing tolerance. I will be working with colleagues to explore how grasses with these traits are related to each other, and to fire-adapted grasses,” she said.

Archibald added that she is excited because this opportunity allows her to link applied, management oriented research with basic science questions around the diversification and dominance of different grass clades, and to maintain and strengthen her international collaborations on this topic.

“It will also enable me to initiate a long-term study of grass population dynamics in the Cradle of Humankind which will provide rich data for research for many years to come.”

She said that research so far has shown interesting interactions between fire and grazing – by affecting how fires spread grazing mammals can reduce the amount of fire in a landscape, and by changing the forage quality of the grasses that it burns, fire can move grazing animals around in space.

“We suspect that fires have long-term impacts on the fecundity of grazing populations, and therefore the carrying capacity of an ecosystem, but that remains to be tested.”

Meanwhile, Sheridan said that his focus will be on constructed wetlands (CWs) which have real potential as a viable treatment technology for the South African context. 

“It requires minimal technical input following design and installation which is an ideal trait in a scarce skills environment. However, it is an extremely complex system and as such the modelling of the CWs is very difficult,” he explained.

Sheridan, a Senior Lecturer, has three postgraduate students working on CWs. One project investigates the use of charcoal-based CWs for acid mine drainage remediation.  The other two projects both seek to investigate the fundamental principles of operation within these systems. 

“I am currently building collaboration between the Helmholtz Umwalt Forzung Zentrum in Leipzig, Germany. I spent part of my sabbatical there in 2013 as they have a well-established group and research programme,” he said.

The project programme seeks to expand the current understanding of these systems and to use fundamental chemical engineering principles within a microbiological space to develop the novel insight. 

“We will use this to expand the potential use of CWs within the South African context to include, amongst others, brewery wastewater, paper mill wastewater, and other mine drainage. As part of this programme we plan to establish a full exchange of academics and researchers to extend the collaboration,” said Sheridan.

Friedel Sellschop was first appointed director of the Nuclear Physics Research Unit at Wits in 1956. As a brilliant physicist and scholar he made significant contributions to particle physics, notably being the first to detect the presence of neutrinos in deep South African mines.  Later with his appointment as DVC: Research, he became instrumental in establishing a strong research culture across the entire University.

Based on this legacy the University recognises and encourages exceptional young researchers by awarding a number of Sellschop Awards each year.  This year, the award is worth up to R135 000.

All the recipients of this year’s award met Susan Sellschop, the wife of the late Friedel Sellschop, for a celebratory lunch on Friday, 10 April 2015.