Broad Research Interests
I am a Future Leader of African Independent Research (FLAIR) Fellow at the South African Environmental Observation Network. My research is in the field of plant physiological ecology and focuses on the physiological mechanisms underpinning ecological patterns and processes, particularly those arising in response to abiotic stresses. Broadly, I examine questions pertaining to the biophysical determinants of terrestrial plant functionality, productivity, abundance and geographical distributions at scales ranging from whole plants to entire ecosystems.
Future Leaders – African Independent Research (FLAIR) Fellowships are for talented African early career researchers who have the potential to become leaders in their field. The FLAIR Fellowship is a partnership between the African Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society and is funded as part of the Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF) which is part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA). These fellowships provide the opportunity to build an independent research career in a sub-Saharan African institution and to undertake cutting-edge scientific research that will address global challenges facing developing countries.
Royal Society website: https://royalsociety.org/grants-schemes-awards/grants/flair/
My FLAIR Fellowship
My specific project aims to produce robust mechanistic frameworks of plant response to the environment based on quantitative physiology. Sub-Saharahan Africa is one of the regions most vulnerable to drought and incremental warming. Climate change threatens water availability and important sectors that rely on natural ecosystems, such as forestry and tourism. This project aims to reduce uncertainty surrounding the capacity of natural ecosystems to withstand climate change by developing new fundamental insights in the biological sciences, thereby improving predictions of the ecological impacts of drought. One important expected outcome is a quantitative assessment to show how drought-induced changes to plant functionality in canopies affect long-term plant performance and viability – reducing uncertainty over the capacity of natural ecosystems to cope with water stress, and enabling more accurate and reliable predictions of plant health and productivity. The potential scientific, economic, and ecological benefits for South African communities are considerable. The development of innovative technologies to monitor plant health – including miniature external sapflow gauges – may well lead to new commercial products. This project is perfectly aligned with South Africa’s research priorities in areas of long-term environmental change, for enduring scientific and societal benefit.
I obtained my Ph.D. in Plant Ecophysiology in 2014 under the supervision of Assoc. Prof. Adam West in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. In the five years following my PhD I conducted postdoctoral research in Australia and the United States. In Australia I was a Postdoctoral Researcher with Prof. Timothy Brodribb in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Tasmania. Following my first postdoc I was a Postdoctoral Research Associate with Professors David Ackerly, Todd Dawson and Sally Thompson in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California Berkeley, California.
Current Academic Pursuits
My research focuses on the theory and practice of plant ecology and plant physiology, with a particular emphasis on fundamental principles of plant hydraulic function and plant response to water deficit. Mechanistic frameworks of plant response to the environment based on quantitative physiology are the only way to effectively model future changes in plant health and function. Yet, the precise physiological mechanisms underlying many plant drought responses remains poorly understood, hindering our ability to scale up and predict future outcomes. Furthermore, we lack adequate knowledge of how key physiological traits and responses vary among major terrestrial plant taxa, particularly those from diverse flora, ensuring that current frameworks for characterizing drought tolerance of plant species are incomplete. My research seeks to address these primary challenges by examining fundamental physiological mechanisms underlying broader plant processes and responses, with a particular emphasis on functionally and ecologically diverse plant taxa occurring in temperate ecosystems.
Research questions/areas that I am currently examining include:
- CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORKS OF DROUGHT TOLERANCE: Can we identify the range of traits and physiological processes that determine how well a plant is able to tolerate water deficit?
- PHYSIOLOGICAL THRESHOLDS OF DROUGHT-INDUCED DAMAGE: how and when does water transport through xylem break down, and what are the implications for whole-plant functionality?
- USING WHOLE-PLANT PHYSIOLOGY TO PREDICT ECOSYSTEM FUNCTIONALITY IN A CHANGING WORLD: what are the causes and consequences of declines in plant functionality following drought events in natural communities?