Bettine Jansen van Vuuren, a Professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), delivered her inaugural address with the theme, Genetic information as a cornerstone for conservation biology, in the Council Chambers, Madibeng Building, Auckland Park Kingsway Campus on Tuesday, 28 April 2015.
Prof Jansen van Vuuren completed her MSc and PhD at the University of Pretoria under the supervision of Prof Terry Robinson, one of the leading mammologists and cytogeneticists in South Africa. In 2001, she spent a year in France as a postdoctoral fellow, where she worked on the conservation and management of game species in French Guiana. In 2002 she took up a permanent position at Stellenbosch University as the Laboratory Manager. Prof Jansen van Vuuren continued with her research into understanding genetic patterns in relation to the landscape, and specifically how these patterns can inform the management of species. In 2011, she accepted a position at the University of Johannesburg, where, together with Prof Peter Teske, she established the Molecular Zoology Laboratory.
Her work has always had a strong conservation focus. She has been involved in ground-breaking research documenting genetic patterns for several of southern Africa’s economically important game species (such as roan and sable antelope, and buffalo). Her expertise in this field is widely recognised and she is often consulted by various government departments and conservation agencies as well as the South African game farming industry.
Prof Jansen van Vuuren is currently the scientific advisor to the Department of Environmental Affairs: Directorates Biodiversity Economy and Sustainable Use, as well as Biosecurity Services. As a core team member of the Centre for Invasion Biology (one of the NRF-DST Centres of Excellence), she was responsible for coordinating aspects of the recently published regulations that accompany the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (specifically coordinating the listing of vertebrates excluding fish).
Prof Jansen van Vuuren is making sure that science stays relevant to society. To this end, she is the current President of the Zoological Society of Southern Africa, the Vice Chair of the NRF Foundational Biodiversity Information Steering Committee, the member representing Zoological Sciences on the ad hoc SANBI Permitting Panel, and she also serves on an NRF Panel.
Since 2007, she has published more than 60 full length research papers, mostly in first tier journals, and her work has been cited more than 1,000 times in the primary literature. High impact work is always the result of large collaborations, and she currently collaborates with researchers in South Africa, the DR Congo, Australia, Europe and America. She ascribes much of her success to collaborations and a dedicated lab constituent; to date she has supervised (or co-supervised) more than 30 masters and doctoral students and hosted several postdocs.
Abstract of the inaugural address by Prof Bettine Jansen van Vuuren
1. Research should be relevant and aligned to current problems
The conservation of species depend on a thorough understanding of the factors that threaten them across their distributions as well as the steps required to mitigate these threats. The main threats to species' continued survival is listed as climate change and biological invasions. This is certainly true for a large number of species in South Africa. In addition, the importance of biodiversity farming (i.e. the private ownership of biodiversity) culminates in a somewhat unique threat to species with commercial interest namely hybridisation of geographically distinct lineages because of the frequent translocation of game species. This threat requires specific management and to his end, an entire section in the Biodiversity Act (NEM:BA #10 of 2004) was dedicated to preventing and regulating hybridisation between closely related yet distinct genetic groups.
Science is frequently criticised as "Ivory Tower" work with little or no relevance to the every-day world. Unfortunately this criticism is often true where scientists get caught-up in their own detailed research, and seldom make the effort to make their work available to the general public, or structure their research to be relevant to every-day problems. It is vital that we make an effort to apply the knowledge and understanding gained from our scientific studies to every-day problems; be that through serving on panels or interacting with end-users. If our work is not relevant, we will not be able to justify the funding we receive. Our work will be obsolete.
2. Understanding biological invasions and the conservation of local biodiversity
Biological invasions feature as one of the most prominent threats to native species. This threat can be either through direct competition or predation, or indirectly through competition for resources. Understanding how invasive species spread at a global as well as at a local scale provide vital information to manage and potentially eradicate these threats. An interesting finding to emerge in more recent literature is also the idea of super invaders, or individuals that are more adapted to spread.
For the most, the ecosystems on Southern Ocean Islands and Antarctica are relatively simple compared to those on continents, and identifying invasives and discovering their origins are relatively easier to document here. However, comparative studies on continents are equally important as there are typically orders of magnitude more invasives on continents, and their impacts potentially much larger.
3. Southern Ocean Island molecular ecology
Humans have had a profound effect on biodiversity; these changes are arguably best studied in the Southern Ocean, the few islands that inhabits this vast expanse of water, and the world's coldest and most isolated continent, Antarctica. The main reason is because the ecosystems found here are relatively simple compared to those typically found on mainlands, and for the most part, these islands and continent remains largely pristine.
Through the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP) and her research vessels, the SA Agulhas and SA Agulhas II, South African researchers are afforded a privileged opportunity to study biodiversity and change on the South African Prince Edward Islands, in Dronning Maud Land in Antarctica, and link their work, through international collaborations, to other Southern Ocean islands and Antarctica at large.