Figure 1: (a) Illustrative images of sample locations in Amsterdam and the Hoge Veluwe. (b) The newly developed ‘pollen sniffer’ collects airborne pollen from the environment. (c) The FTIR can chemically characterise individual pollen grains.
Does environmental pollution enhance the allergenic nature of pollen? This is the question that drives my NWO Idea Generator grant that has just started. This project links up the pollen chemistry expertise in my group within the Department of Ecosystem & Landscape Dynamics (University of Amsterdam) and the work of Letty de Weger into human health and pollen (Leiden University Medical Centrum). Over the 2020 flowering season we will be monitoring pollen in Amsterdam (urban) and in the Hoge Veluwe (rural) in the space in which people have allergic reactions to see if there is any chemical difference between the pollen in urban and rural settings.
We are delighted that Cas Verbeek has joined the team as a Research Assistant; taking time out from his MSc Biological Sciences degree (University of Amsterdam). Cas is already busy in the field and lab fine tuning our collection and analysis protocols.
The transition from Early Career Researcher (ECR) to head of a new laboratory
When you are in the midst of working on your PhD you feel that this must surely be the toughest challenge you’ll ever face, only to emerge on the other side and realise that it was a holiday in comparison to the academic journey post-PhD.
I completed my PhD at the University of Cape Town (South Africa) and immediately launched myself into a postdoctoral fellowship embedded in a relatively large international research initiative. Building on the expertise and knowledge I gained from my postgraduate work, I generated new pollen and microcharcoal records from the southern Cape and west coast regions of South Africa in order to reveal details about how climate and associated environmental conditions have changed during the Holocene. I found the transition from working almost entirely independently on my PhD to collaborating within the context of a large multidisciplinary and multinational team equally very exciting, and very challenging. At this time imposter syndrome hit me hard and I had a bit of an existential crisis (I’m overqualified, too specialized and not earning enough, what the hell am I doing with my life? – I know we’ve all been there!). Just as I was about to give up on academia, I was approached by Nelson Mandela University, one of the smaller, lesser known, public universities in South Africa, situated in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province. After a lot of soul searching, I accepted a research fellowship at NMU, moved out of my home in Cape Town (where I had lived my entire life) and relocated to a new city – by myself, with no contacts, friends or family there.
The primary focus of the new state-of-the-art palaeoecology laboratory at Nelson Mandela University is to conduct palynological studies, with a strong geographic emphasis on the Cape south coast and the Cape Floristic Region in general. While our initial and primary focus will be on pollen analysis, our overarching goal is to establish a highly versatile open science resource-base for palaeoscience research at Nelson Mandela University.
Erin Hilmer completed an undergraduate BSc degree at Nelson Mandela University followed by an honours in geology at the University of Stellenbosch. In addition to her role as the Senior Laboratory Technician of the new palaeolab, she manages Port Elizabeth’s only pollen and spore trap and generates weekly pollen and spore data for the city. This work forms part of a national monitoring network (www.pollencount.co.za). She also has expertise in geochronology and scanning electron (SEM) microscopy.
As a palaeoecologist and biogeographer I am delighted to have become a Subject Editor for Plant Ecology & Diversity (PE&D). In my new role for the journal I hope to handle a broad range of articles within my area “Global Change & Vegetation Dynamics: Past, Present & Future”. As Subject Editor, as well as organizing general submissions, I would also like to promote a range of articles focused on scientific themes that build upon key publications.
The first of these themes will be “long-termecology” and will build upon the recent ‘monster’ Grubb Review written by John Birks (Birks, 2019). The Birks manuscript covers a vast range of topics centred on the contribution of Quaternary botany to understanding modern ecology and biogeography. Topics covered within the Birks manuscript include:
Vegetation range shifts
Human impacts on ecosystems
I plan to pull together the “long-term ecology” set of manuscripts for PE&D during 2020, and contributions are welcome on any of the issues and research areas highlighted in the Birks manuscript.
Githumbi, E., Marchant, R. & Olago, D. (2020) Using the Past to Inform a Sustainable Future: Palaeoecological Insights from East Africa. Africa and the Sustainable Development Goals (ed. by M. Ramutsindela & D. Mickler), pp. 187-195. Springer Nature, Switzerland AG. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-14857-7_18