Renowned botanist receives two prestigious scientific awards

2010-11-04 00:00

HIS work with plants started early in life. While other little boys were collecting creepy crawlies, Professor Johannes van Staden kept a thriving garden. It comes as no surprise that this pastime later metamorphosed into an equally prolific career which saw Van Staden, a botanist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), recently honoured with two of the country’s most prestigious scientific awards in one year.

“I have always been interested in plants. It was a natural thing since childhood. I liked growing and keeping plants and developing them,” he recently told The Witness.

This love for plants has established him as a world-class botanist in what has been a career of 48 years.

As one of the most frequently cited scientists in the world, Van Staden has produced more than 1 075 papers in both national and international journals.

He is director of the Research Centre for Plant Growth and Development at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus and has been with the university for over 40 years.

In that time, he has supervised and co-supervised 51 post-doctoral students, 86 PhD students and 76 Masters students. Together with his students and colleagues, he has presented 855 research talks and posters at conferences around the world.

As if that were not enough, Van Staden acts as editor and referee for more than 30 international journals each year. He is regularly requested to evaluate proposals for different international bodies.

Speaking to The Witness about his awards, Van Staden said: “It is always rewarding to have your work as a scientist recognised. I have always enjoyed working with students, especially senior students. I have enjoyed guiding them in the field of research, which is what I think these awards are about,” he added.

His work has centred on plant biotechnology and plant physiology, which deal with the regulation of plant growth with the goal of increasing crop production, the value of the plant, as well as propagation, which has to do with growing plants in flasks.

Amongst other things, Van Staden is currently researching the use of plants in traditional medicine.

However, the research that has forced the world’s eyes on South Africa is his work with smoke.

According to Van Staden, scientists have long suspected that fire contains a stimulative element.

He has managed to isolate new compounds from smoke, a process that has taken 14 years to mature. An added six years has resulted in the discovery of another compound by Van Staden and his collaborators. What this means is that these compounds can be used as stimulants or inhibitors to control plant growth.

“I do believe that it will revolutionise agriculture and horticulture because we can stimulate the germination of seeds. And if a plant is growing under adverse conditions, we can make it grow more vigorously. The commercial implications are that it can grow faster and produce a better product.”

But even with this long list of accomplishments, Van Staden is not too keen at being described as the most productive scientist in South Africa. The Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (South African Academy for Science and Art), pronounced him thus when he was awarded the M.T. Steyn Medal for Natural Science and Technical Achievement earlier in the month.

“For me that is a relative term and I don’t like it much. What is ‘productive’ and how do you measure it? I have had excellent students working with me. What I have achieved has not been single-handed.”

But as any of his students will tell you, being one of his students requires a 100% commitment.

He doesn’t discuss matters over e-mails and he doesn’t believe in “African” time.

“I find e-mails impersonal and dead. And if you are late you are late and you make everyone else late,” is his simple take on the matter.

He expects his students to be loyal and willing to work.

”Students today do not want to work. But I teach them quite quickly that there is no space for mediocrity here. If they are enthusiastic and come with new ideas then they challenge me to challenge them.”

His advice for young scientists is simple: “Stop moaning and work.”

“Things don’t improve by moaning. Show you have mettle, drive and novel ideas and stick with them. In time life will reward you adequately”.

Van Staden will receive the 2010 Gold Medal of the Southern African Association for the Advancement of Science (S2A3) in an awards ceremony next month.

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