Plant ecologist Prof Karen Esler of the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology has been promoted to the position of distinguished professor – and in the process she has become the first woman to receive the honour in the Faculty of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch University.
The position was also re-bestowed on animal scientist Prof Kennedy Dzama, wine biotechnologist Prof Florian Bauer and postharvest specialist Prof Linus Opara.
The title of distinguished professor gives recognition to academics' exceptional performance and leadership in higher education in the areas of research, learning and teaching, as well as social impact. It also recognises the academics' international stature in their respective disciplines.
Prof Esler has served Stellenbosch University for 25 years and as a full professor since 2008. She is currently enjoying her second and final term as chair of the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology. She has been a core member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Invasion Biology since its inception in 2004, and is currently an associate member of the Centre for Coastal Palaeosciences at Nelson Mandela University.
As a leader in the disciplinary fields of Mediterranean-ecosystem plant ecology and restoration ecology, Prof Esler has published more than 200 peer-reviewed publications. She is also a highly productive postgraduate supervisor, having supported 64 MSc (30 cum laude) and 22 PhD students to graduate since 1996.
“An important driver of my research has been to deliver products that will be of practical use in the fields of conservation planning, vegetation management and the restoration of degraded ecosystems" Prof Esler explains, “for this reason my work has become increasingly transdisciplinary in nature".
She says transdisciplinary research acknowledges the need for diverse perspectives to enhance understanding of complex social-ecological challenges and is increasingly advocated as a way to bridge the “knowing-doing gap" for sustainable actions. Prof Esler approaches this by collaborating (among others with colleagues in Brazil, USA and Europe), facilitating, leading and supervising research on a wide range of ecological and sustainability-related topics.
She is currently working on team-based projects related to the ecological restoration of Fynbos and riparian systems, including a focus on the roles that nature based solutions might play in improving ecosystem functioning while contributing to social-ecological system resilience. Other work focuses on the perceptions of stakeholders about ecosystems, ecologically-based farm management and the use of an ecological infrastructure approach to water management.
“My collaborations (both national and international) are a general feature of my academic life and reach beyond my disciplinary foci to include social-ecological aspects – an understanding of the value and consequences of human interactions with the natural landscape and the ecological infrastructure it provides" she notes.
“This research has lent towards applied solutions for best-practice management, ecological restoration and conservation," says Prof Esler, who currently serves as regional editor for Africa for the international journal Conservation Biology.
Among these outputs count popular books such as Karoo veld: Ecology and Management (Briza Publications, 2006, also available in Afrikaans), Fynbos: Ecology & Management (Briza Publications, 2014, also available in Afrikaans) and The Biology of Mediterranean-Type Ecosystem (Oxford University Press, 2018).
Her research output and teaching abilities have been recognised repeatedly through Rector's Awards, and in 2018 she was also named as a leading figure in South African science when she was a category winner in the South African Woman in Science Award (SAWiSA).
Prof Esler, who in 2006 became the first woman president of the South African Association of Botanists, is acutely interested in promoting women in science and in academia in general and has served in various leadership roles in this regard, including the chair of the board of HERS-SA for seven years.
She plays a key international role at the interface between science and policy, including recently as review editor for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Report (2018-2019). She was one of 38 invited experts from 16 countries at the Global Forum on Ecological Restoration in Cape Town and serves as the South African representative on the International Society for Mediterranean Ecology, which will hold its 2021 conference in South Africa.