Young scientist's love for nature helps to protect our biodiversity

25 June 2018 - 07:00 By gcis vuk'uzenzele
Ashton Welcome plant taxonomist at the South African National Botanical Institute.
Ashton Welcome plant taxonomist at the South African National Botanical Institute.
Image: Supplied.

The love for biology led Welcome to the world of botany at the age of 29, Ashton Welcome is already making waves in the scientific community. She has authored and co-authored three scientific articles and presented her fascinating work at various national and international conferences. 

Welcome is in her second year of employment as a plant taxonomist at the South African National Botanical Institute’s (SANBI).

Her role in a field known as biosystematics is to unlock the mysteries of plant families examining the differences between species while also exploring the importance that plants have for humans and the environment alike.

“Being so interested in useful plants I began to realise the importance of the classification of plants. For example, two plants may look very similar, but one of them may be an edible species and the other poisonous so you have to understand what the difference is,” Welcome explained.

She specialises mainly in the Malvaceae family of plants which includes commonly-known genera such as cotton and the hibiscus.

The Malvaceae family contains 4 225 known species and it is Welcome’s job to identify the differences between samples of species that occur in Southern Africa.

“We take these groups of species and see what the characteristics are that differentiate them. Sometimes it will be something obvious such as the flowers or leaves, but other times you will have to examine the anatomy under a microscope to spot the differences,” said Welcome.

“Malvaceae plants have various uses for humans, we all know the value of cotton in terms of clothing and textiles. Some plants also contain edible nuts, others are eaten as a traditional spinach, while some have very fibrous bark that can be used as rope," she added.  

A love for nature

Welcome grew up in a house set amongst rocky hills close to a nature reserve in southern Johannesburg where her love for nature was ignited.

“We had a little mountain garden where I would play. I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back I think that this is where my passion for biology and botany started,” she said.

“I loved biology at school and it was one of the subjects that I got a distinction for in matric. I was also part of the high school science club. It felt very natural for me to go into a biology-related degree at university,” she added.

Welcome took biology and botany in her first year at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). In her second year she was introduced to economic botany and the use of plants by humans. This eventually led to the PhD thesis that Welcome is working on which explores the indigenous food plants of South Africa. She has already made some interesting findings.

“The first pattern we have established is that cultural groups living in dry areas are more dependent on food plants that have a higher water content. I am very excited about discovering more through this project because it really shows how important plants are and how dependent people have been on them over hundreds of years," she said. 

Flourishing at SANBI

SANBI is a cornerstone of the scientific community in South Africa especially when it comes to botany. The herbarium contains thousands of plant specimens which researchers, universities and scientists often turn to when completing their work. Welcome is one of the people who ensures that all of this information is correctly organised, so that it can be accessed easily.

She says that SANBI plays a vital role in protecting the incredible biodiversity of South Africa.

“There is no other organisation like SANBI; certainly in Southern Africa there are none that compare. SANBI is the foundation that everyone turns to for our historical collections, library, preserved specimens and our expert researchers. These are the go-to people in the industry, and one day I hope to become a go-to person myself," said Welcome

Welcome also added that the youth of today need to look at botany and science as a whole in a different way.

“The youth don’t see this as a glamorous career and some students may rather study towards careers that are portrayed as more fashionable. But I think that if more emphasis is placed on linking plants to their importance and the history of their use then that would encourage a lot more people,” she said.

  • This article was originally published in the GCIS Vuk'uzenzele.

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