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Tax­onomist Ash­ton Wel­come is mak­ing waves in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity

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 (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 how im­por­tant the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of them is. For ex­am­ple, two plants may look very sim­i­lar, but one 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 hi­bis­cus.

Iden­ti­fy­ing dif­fer­ences

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 char­ac­ters 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.

She added that Mal­vaceae plants have var­i­ous uses for hu­mans.

“We all know the value of cot­ton in terms of cloth­ing and tex­ting.

Some plants con­tain ed­i­ble nuts, oth­ers are eaten as a tra­di­tional spinach and some have very fi­brous bark that can be used as rope.”

A love of na­ture

Wel­come grew up in a house set among rocky hills close to a na­ture re­serve in south­ern Jo­han­nes­burg, where her love of 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 – the use of plants by hu­mans. This even­tu­ally led to the PhD the­sis that Wel­come is ex­plor­ing about 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. It in­spires me to con­tinue do­ing my work,” she ex­plained.

The seeds of suc­cess

Although she is hum­ble about her achieve­ments, there is no ques­tion that Wel­come has made some sig­nif­i­cant strides in her field. So what has been the se­cret to her suc­cess?

Wel­come said that she has al­ways had en­cour­age­ment from her fam­ily, as well as her lec­tur­ers and su­per­vi­sors.

“My fam­ily has al­ways been very sup­port­ive of me and more re­cently my hus­band has helped a lot so I'm very grate­ful for that. My PhD su­per­vi­sor Prof Ben-Erik van Wyk has been my main su­per­vi­sor since my hon­ours year. There is no telling how much of who I am as a sci­en­tist to­day is be­cause of him, and he is also the one who in­spired my love of use­ful plants. Dr An­thony Magee and Prof Pa­tri­cia Til­ney were also in­stru­men­tal,” she said

Wel­come ex­plained that pas­sion, as well as re­fus­ing to give up on her dreams, have also helped her on her path.

“I ap­plied for the po­si­tion at SANBI five times be­fore I got the job! Even­tu­ally when I got it, it was so worth it. Don't worry about re­jec­tion and your pride be­ing hurt. If you be­lieve that you can be good at some­thing and en­joy it, then never give up on that.”

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 no one else com­pares. 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.”

SANBI has been sup­port­ive of Wel­come's dreams, al­low­ing her to spend her al­lo­cated re­search time work­ing on her PhD.

Grow­ing the next generation

Wel­come is as­sist­ing to grow the next generation of sci­en­tists by of­fer­ing her knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence to stu­dents study­ing botany. She has demon­strated prac­ti­cals and is an on­line tu­tor at the Univer­sity of South Africa.

At SANBI, she is cur­rently men­tor­ing a ju­nior staff mem­ber and an intern.

“When I first ar­rived at SANBI I was also men­tored and it re­ally helped a lot with learn­ing and get­ting used to the job so I'm try­ing to do that with the young staff mem­bers by as­sist­ing and ad­vis­ing them on some of their projects,” she added

Wel­come said 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 glam­ourous ca­reer and some stu­dents may rather study to­wards ca­reers that are por­trayed as more fash­ion­able. But I think that if more em­pha­sis is paid to link­ing plants to their im­por­tance and the his­tory of their use, it would en­cour­age a lot more peo­ple.”

And what does Wel­come see for her own fu­ture?

“I have re­cently been given a new plant fam­ily to work on and I'm fo­cus­ing on fin­ish­ing my PhD. I also want to ex­pand my knowl­edge into molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy, where you are able to ex­am­ine the cells of plants, like some of the peo­ple at SANBI are al­ready do­ing.”

“In the mean­time, I see more re­search, more pub­li­ca­tions and more men­tor­ing. I haven't thought too much fur­ther than that but I am ex­cited to see where it takes me,” she added.

A ris­ing star

Wel­come's achieve­ments in­clude: Au­thor­ing and co-au­thor­ing pa­pers that have been pub­lished in three sci­en­tific jour­nals.

Pre­sent­ing her study find­ings at 10 flag­ship botanist con­fer­ences.

Be­ing awarded the best Mas­ter of Sci­ence pre­sen­ta­tion in UJ's Botany and Biotech­nol­ogy depart­ment in 2012. Be­ing awarded a SANBI bur­sary in 2012, and a Na­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion Masters bur­sary in 2013.

She will also present study find­ings at another in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence later this year.

Sci­en­tist Ash­ton Wel­come is un­lock­ing the mys­ter­ies of plant fam­i­lies.

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