Dr Melissa Boonzaaier-Davids – marine ecologist, and specialist taxonomist in marine invertebrates; UWC alumna; assistant curator at Iziko South African Museum and certified commercial class IV diver – receives National Geographic Society Grant to study the marine life of South Africa's coastline.
To celebrate this remarkable achievement, we interviewed Dr Melissa Boonzaaier-Davids – catch the interview below!
Dr Melissa Boonzaaier-Davids in her office at the Iziko South African Museum. Photograph: Nigel Pamplin © Iziko Museums of South Africa.
1. Firstly, I would like to congratulate you on becoming a National Geographic Explorer! How does it feel and what does it mean to become a National Geographic Explorer?
Thank you very much for your wishes! Being named a 2022 National Geographic Explorer is a privilege and I am very excited for the opportunity to be funded by the National Geographic Society. The likes of Drs Jane Goodall (English primatologist) and Sylvia Earle (American marine biologist), and the late Jacques Cousteau (French ocean explorer), considered to be amongst the world’s most influential researchers and adventurers whose work and research have significantly advanced science and impacted society, all share(d) the title of National Geographic Explorers. Therefore, I am thrilled to be joining the global community of inspiring Explorers!
“The likes of Drs Jane Goodall (English primatologist) and Sylvia Earle (American marine biologist), and the late Jacques Cousteau (French ocean explorer), considered to be amongst the world’s most influential researchers and adventurers whose work and research have significantly advanced science and impacted society, all share(d) the title of National Geographic Explorers.”
2. Let’s start at the beginning: could you perhaps tell us a bit about your career journey? How did you get into the sciences? And where has your research led you?
Since I was a little girl, our family spent a lot of time outside in the garden, at the sea and in nature reserves where we would explore and play. I have always been fascinated and curious about nature, especially the ocean. So, it has been my dream to become a marine biologist and explore the ocean. I obtained my matric in Kuilsriver and completed my undergraduate and Honours degrees at the University of Stellenbosch (US). Thereafter I moved to Gqeberha (then known as Port Elizabeth) to pursue and obtain my Masters degree at the Nelson Mandela University (then known as the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University). For two years, I worked on loggerhead sea turtles and the effects of changing environmental temperatures on the nesting populations in KwaZulu-Natal. In 2011, I moved back to Cape Town, and did a marine biology internship at US working on the protected South African abalone (Haliotis midae) and the diversity of marine polychaete worms (bristle worms). This is when I was introduced to marine invertebrate taxonomy and developed an interest for small marine invertebrates.
A PhD project working with Dr Wayne Florence at the Iziko South African Museum (ISAM) on bryozoans or moss animals became available and I started my doctoral studies in 2012 through the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Here, at Iziko Museums, as an assistant curator in the marine invertebrate collections, where I developed an interest and passion for natural history collections and the specialised taxonomy of moss animals. Since completing my doctorate, I worked as an environmental consultant and a short time as a lecturer for the Wildlife and Ecological Investments (WEI) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). I learnt a lot from and enjoyed these working experiences, but I also missed being in the marine sciences sector, especially the work we did at Iziko Museums. Eventually there was an opportunity available and currently, I am working as an Assistant Curator/Postdoctoral Fellow in the marine invertebrate collections under the National Research Foundation’s Professional Development Programme (NRF-PDP). With at least six years of curatorial and public engagement experience, I have developed a passion for and interest in natural history museum collections and science communication.
3. Your work focuses on the taxonomy and biogeographical distributions of South African marine Phylum: Bryozoa (‘moss animals’) – could you perhaps explain this to us in layman’s terms?
Moss animals or bryozoans belong to the Phylum Bryozoa. A ‘phylum’ is rank used in the biological taxonomy of all organisms and to simplify, taxonomy is a branch of science used for the classification of lifeforms (living and extinct). For example, Homo sapiens (Latin: "wise man") is the scientific name for the human species where Homo is the human genus and H. sapiens is the only surviving species of the genus Homo. This is the way all organisms are named.
Moss animals are colonial, aquatic, suspension-feeding invertebrates and occur across all depths, salinity regimes, latitudes with most of the species found in marine habitats and some in freshwater habitats. In South Africa, we know little about moss animals and where they are distributed along our coastline. Based on how large our museum collections are with unnamed species, we can assume high species richness and diversity of moss animals along our coast. To better understand our oceans, biogeography, how species are distributed along our coast and the environmental factors that cause these patterns, we need to know what they are and what species we have!
“For example, Homo sapiens (Latin: "wise man") is the scientific name for the human species where Homo is the human genus and H. sapiens is the only surviving species of the genus Homo. This is the way all organisms are named.”
4. I can imagine that your journey has been filled with highlights, and, I’m sure, many challenges. What drives you to carry on and to achieve/discover more? And can you elaborate on some of the highlights?
I am a curious person and I especially love learning about our ‘unsung heroes’, the ocean critters that are usually overlooked! I enjoy solving problems like a puzzle or how a detective solves crimes. Taxonomy is similar to solving a problem – find out what group a species belong to, are they indigenous or not, how did they get here etc. and describing a new species is exciting! But this process of trying to place a species in a group and figuring out its biology, as any specialist taxonomist would agree to, is not easy and may take months or years to get answers.
Apart from receiving a grant from the National Geographic Society and obtaining my commercial diving licence recently, some of my highlights include spending a few months in 2013 at the Natural History Museum in London as a visiting researcher during my doctoral studies funded by Iziko Museums and the NRF, and when we published nine new species and one new genus of moss animals which was new to science. Two species names are eponyms, therefore named after living relatives of mine, my father and grandmother. These are Trypostega richardi Boonzaaier-Davids, Florence & Gibbons, 2020 and Khulisa carolinae Boonzaaier-Davids, Florence & Gibbons, 2020, respectively, and I am thrilled they were able to experience it!
“Two species names are eponyms, therefore named after living relatives of mine, my father and grandmother.”
5. As a marine biologist, it’s important to problem solve, observe, document, engage with the world around you, and tell stories that inspire others. How have you applied these ‘values’ or mindsets to your work, and is there an area that you’re most passionate about?
Since 2008, I regularly volunteered at institutions and environmental education organisations like the Two Oceans Aquarium, Bayworld Museum and Oceanarium, and the Helderberg Eco-Rangers, and have been a regular guest speaker on the national radio station ‘Radio Sonder Grense’ (RSG) that further honed my science communication or ‘story telling’ skills. The work I do at Iziko Museums satisfy my passion for both research and science communication. Therefore, as part of our National Geographic Society-funded project, we are collaborating with the Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve (CWBR), a non-profit organisation based in the Western Cape who are passionate about outreach and environmental education. CWBR will be coordinating the science engagement where we want the public, especially kids, to explore the rocky shores, learn hands-on about the marine biodiversity and life that resides in the rocky shores.
“We aim to use the image and video content to engage the public on some of the work marine biologists do and the work we do at the Museum, and also tell stories that will inspire the youth to be enthusiastic about science and discovery!”
We are also documenting as much as we can, of the science engagement events, underwater footage and laboratory work to produce educational content. We aim to use the image and video content to engage the public on some of the work marine biologists do and the work we do at the Museum, and also tell stories that will inspire the youth to be enthusiastic about science and discovery!
6. You have published several publications from 2010 – 2020 what are you currently working on, and will this form a part of your work as a NatGeo Explorer?
There are a few overlapping projects and publications I am busy writing up currently. The publications deal mostly with the taxonomic revisions of some problematic families of moss animals. In another project, with a co-author at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape, we are examining some epibiont (i.e. an organism that lives on the surface of another living organism) moss animals found on the invasive Mediterranean mussel. As for the National Geographic Society-funded project, which was based on my doctoral studies, we are investigating the marine invertebrate diversity and genetic diversity in areas along our coastline that we have little to no information. It is still
early days as we just started with the sampling, but we are eager to share our data when we finalise the project in November 2022.
7. What excites you most about being a NatGeo Explorer?
The grant from the National Geographic Society allows me, as an early career researcher, to coordinate my first independent research project. Along with my colleagues based at Iziko Museums who are experts in their respective fields, we are collaborating on this multidisciplinary project that requires field sampling in interesting and beautiful locations. As an Explorer, we receive wonderful opportunities to hone and diversify our skills set, and to network and collaborate with fellow Explorers. For those reasons, I am very excited for the field work associated with this project and the opportunities/research that will stem from it.
“As an Explorer, we receive wonderful opportunities to hone and diversify our skills set, and to network and collaborate with fellow Explorers. For those reasons, I am very excited for the field work associated with this project and the opportunities/research that will stem from it.”
8. Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring scientists?
The academic workplace can be an intimidating space to find yourself in. It is important to surround yourself with a strong support system, these may include family, friends, and professional colleagues (which includes mentors).
Mentors can share their knowledge and experiences with you, broaden your networks, provide encouragement, and support you in your professional and personal development. Choose your mentors carefully and align yourself with those who share your values.
At a conference for young aspiring scientists, speaker and physicist Pedro Miguel Echenique of the University of the Basque Country (UPV) stated that it is important to cultivate your scientific curiosity. This could be, for example, to set aside regular time—schedule it if necessary—to do some reading about topics you are curious about. True curiosity is a habit and becomes entangled in all aspects of your life, but once you start to cultivate it, it becomes second-nature.
See Melissa speak on SEM too, created in collaboration with the Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve (CWBR): https://bit.ly/SEMTechnology.
Interview conducted by Awonke Paul – Iziko Museums’ Digital Communications Assistant.