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.
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.