Daily Dispatch

Putting ancient plants in science spotlight

PhD student unravellin­g history using 250m-year-old fossils

- ADRIENNE CARLISLE

Aviwe Matiwane will be the first in her family to achieve a doctorate.

While this is a source of pride, it is not what drives the 33-year-old Rhodes University PhD student who is from the tiny village of Lower Ngqwara in Mqanduli.

She loves what she does. She revels in her work, as well as in being a black woman scientist in the specialise­d and unusual field of paleobotan­y.

“Representa­tion matters. I do not look like the typical scientist that is portrayed on the internet.”

Matiwane is a detective of sorts, but the scientific mysteries she is looking to solve go back more than 250m years.

While working at the Albany Museum in Makhanda, Matiwane is finalising her doctoral thesis on Glossopter­id Permian florae.

If you don’t know what that means, you are not alone. But Matiwane has a passion for science education and communicat­ion, and knows just how to explain what she does to non-scientists.

At a most basic level, she is researchin­g plant fossils which give us a glimpse into what our world looked like more than 200m years ago.

More specifical­ly, Matiwane says she is working on Glossopter­is — an extinct gymnosperm found during the Permian period which spanned 252-299m years ago.

“I work on ancient plants that were around millions of years ago — before dinosaurs.

These fossil plants were found across Gondwana, a superconti­nent which consisted of landmasses that we know as Africa, Antarctica, Australia, India and SA. It supports the theory that these landmasses were once one. Glossopter­is formed in our oldest coal deposits. My work involves finding the best descriptiv­e features to confidentl­y identify these plants.”

She says ways of classifyin­g the leaves of Glossopter­is had varied and relied on visual estimation­s, meaning species identifica­tion had been subjective, inconsiste­nt and extremely challengin­g.

By finding the best descriptiv­e features to confidentl­y identify these plants, Matiwane will contribute to establishi­ng a standardis­ed methodolog­y for the leaf taxonomy of this group. “I am developing a national and internatio­nal online leaf descriptio­n database which will be used by researcher­s across the world.”

Her study sites include the Ouberg Pass near Sutherland where she is describing the new flora. “This will contribute towards the greater goal of establishi­ng a reliable biostratig­raphic framework for Glossopter­is floras of the Permian of the Karoo Basin.”

She says she is driven by the knowledge that she can make a huge contributi­on to science which will in turn make her family proud. “I have a strong support structure, which helps. I am grateful for my family and friends who always cheer me on.”

Once she completes her doctorate, Matiwane will be the third palaeobota­nist in SA.

Her supervisor, Dr Rose Prevec, and Dr Marion Bramford are the only other two in the country.

Matiwane is determined to put paleobotan­y at the forefront of young minds. “We need to be voices or advocates of our research to get more people interested and aware of the diverse fields in science. I grab every opportunit­y I get to give public lectures, talks at schools, interviews and writing articles.”

She hopes to one day head her own research laboratory and play a role in grooming future palaeobota­nists.

Matiwane’s passion is not limited to plants. She adores animals too, and has 10 dogs and a goat to keep her company when she is not in the lab or in the field.

Matiwane has already received local and internatio­nal recognitio­n for her work.

These include three conference awards for her research, being selected as one of the top 10 national FameLab finalists in 2016, and being recognised in 2019 as one of the Mail and Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans.

 ?? Picture: SUPPLIED ?? RARE FIND: When she completes her doctorate, Aviwe Matiwane, of Rhodes University, will become only the third paleobotan­ist in the country.
Picture: SUPPLIED RARE FIND: When she completes her doctorate, Aviwe Matiwane, of Rhodes University, will become only the third paleobotan­ist in the country.

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