Aviwe Matiwane on Studying Plant Fossils in South Africa

Aviwe Matiwane on Studying Plant Fossils in South Africa

Today we have an interview with Aviwe Matiwane, a Ph.D. student registered in the Department of Botany at Rhodes University, Grahamstown. She is working on a palaeobotanical and biostratigraphic project and is based at the Albany Museum. Aviwe hails from a small village in Mqanduli, known as Lower Nqqwara outside Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. She obtained both her Honours and Master of Science degrees at Rhodes University. We loved speaking with her about her experience as a botanist and her Ph.D. project.

What inspired you to want to study botany?

“I have been inspired by so many people. My grandfather played the biggest role. He is a farmer and an herbalist. He knows a lot about indigenous medicinal plants and taught me about the different plants in my area and what they were used for. My aunt is also a sangoma (traditional healer) and her knowledge of plants and how she uses them to heal and help people fascinated me. Elize Cloete, my undergraduate botany taxonomy and systematics lecturer, inspired me to further my career in botany. I enjoyed her lectures so much and I realized that this was what I wanted to do for a living.”

Can you explain what you are studying for your Ph.D.project? Any findings you can share so far?

“I work on Glossopteris which is an early gymnosperm found during the Permian, a period 299-252 million years ago. My project involves finding the best descriptive features to identify and name Glossopteris leaves. My work considers new approaches and techniques that will help standardize Glossopteris leaf taxonomy. I am also developing a national and international online leaf description database which will be used by researchers across the world. Part of my research includes describing a new flora from the first conclusive middle Permian locality of the Karoo Basin of South Africa. We have found new fertile structures including a diversity of new insect fossils.”

What is your favorite thing about fieldwork? Your least favorite thing?

“My favorite thing is discovering fossils new to science, knowing that I am the first person to ever see the specimen after it fossilized, it’s like unwrapping a present. My least favourite thing is sitting in the sun all day and obviously the insects, centipedes, scorpions, and snakes that are always plotting to kill me ;).”

I know that your work involves studying fossilized plants (which is so cool). Can you talk a bit about that?

“Most fossil plants from the Permian of South Africa are found as impressions, preserved as an ‘outline’ or trace of what the original plant looked like. Fossil plants tell a story, for example, there is evidence of historic plant-animal interactions. These are seen through feeding patterns found on the leaves. How cool is that, knowing that there was a prehistoric creature that fed on the leaves you work on?!

South Africa is famous around the world for its rich fossil heritage. Fossil plants are some of the most fascinating and amazing fossils one can ever work on. However, they are not as popular as dinosaur and hominid fossils. These receive all of the spotlight and have a lot of public interest thanks to the scientists that help promote them. That is why Science Communication is very important! We need to be voices or advocates of our research to get more people interested and aware of the diverse fields in science. Most importantly, working on plant fossils is the coolest thing ever!”

What do you hope to do after completing your Ph.D.?

“Sleep for two months!!! ...Hopefully I can get a permanent job in industry or academia. I love teaching and research. If there are no job opportunities, I will apply for a Post Doc.”

Do you have any advice for others who are working toward their Ph.D.?

“Make sure you choose a Ph.D. topic you are passionate about and interested in. It is a three-year commitment that will test you in a lot of ways. Find people you talk to, whether to get guidance about your research or for moral support. Finally, do not forget to have fun and to have a life outside your Ph.D.!”

How did you decide where you wanted to pursue your Ph.D.?

“Four years ago, I started volunteering at the Albany Museum. It was something I did during my spare time and when I wanted to get away from my demanding postgraduate studies. I approached Dr. Rose Prevec, who is the Head of Department/Curator and my current Ph.D. supervisor, and expressed my interest in fossils. She was very helpful, supportive, and encouraging. I had the wonderful opportunity to go on research field trips with her. Her passion and enthusiasm for her work was infectious, this made me even more interested and then I finally decided to join her. There are two Palaeobotanists in the country. My supervisor and her Ph.D. supervisor. Both brilliant researchers. I chose to stay at the Albany museum because I was interested in the research conducted at the lab. I also received a bursary from DST-NRF Center of Excellence in Palaeosciences and research funding from the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST), through this financial support I was able to pursue my studies in this field. “

In 2018, you made the M&G 200 Young South Africans list. Congratulations! What was that like?

“Thank you, it is still surreal. When I got the notification that I had been nominated and selected I was overwhelmed with emotions, and I called my mum and aunts to share the news. It is a great accolade, and I will cherish it forever.”

What do you do in your free time?

“I love animals. I am a mother to 8 dogs, all adopted or rescued. I also make and sell organic body and face creams. I just created an Instagram page for that, @bhedlacosmetics.”

A big thank you to Aviwe for taking the time to chat with us! If you would like to keep up with Aviwe and her work you can find her on Twitter or on Instagram. Finally, if you want to be featured on our blog, shoot an email to kayla@kuviocreative.com.