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SU geologist honoured for lifetime contribution to geological science
Author: Faculty of Science (Wiida Fourie-Basson)
Published: 15/11/2021

​​Prof Alex Kisters, a structural geologist in the Department of Earth Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU), is this year's recipient of the prestigious Draper Memorial Medal, the highest scientific award of the Geological Society of South Africa (GSSA).

The award is made annually to a member of the GSSA for career-long exceptional contributions to geological science, with particular reference to the advancement of South African geology. The Draper Memorial Medial was instituted in 1932 in honour of Dr David Draper, who was the main driving force behind the founding of the GSSA in 1895.

Prof Kisters is honoured for the significant contributions he has made during his career to the understanding of the crustal architecture of Southern Africa, in a number of tectonic domains, and for a career-long commitment to student teaching and guidance.

His research focuses on the formation of earth's crust, sometimes going back  2.5 to 4 billion years in time, to understand the processes which led to the formation of some of the oldest rocks on earth and the assembly or breakup of the continental crust. In 2006, for example, the research was able to demonstrate the amalgamation of distinct crustal blocks in the southern section of the Barberton greenstone belt, 3.2 billion years ago, forming the nucleus of Southern Africa. This work led to a feature with Prof Kisters for the documentary “When continents collide" on the Naked Science channel.

His work has taken him all over the world, throughout Southern Africa, West and East Africa, Asia, Europe and Greenland, sometimes spending as much as six months of the year in the field.

“Some people argue that geology is not an exact science," he explains. “What we find preserved in rocks is only a snapshot of a process that took place millions to billions of years ago and over many iterations. When looking at a terrain, we are dealing with very large data sets, often diverse, imprecise and incomplete, on very different scales, but that need to be integrated in a meaningful way to make sense.  That is perhaps what I enjoy most about geology, that figuring out of which processes led to the formation of a region and terrain, how it was shaped, what it endured and enjoyed".

That is also why some of his postgraduate students eventually land up working for large banks or insurance companies, where lateral thinking and the integration of uncertainties into workable solutions is essential.

Apart from placing great emphasis on field-based training for aspiring geologists, over the years he has also supervised more than 65 BScHons, 20 MSc- and 10 PhD-graduates. Currently he is supervising between five and ten postgraduate students on honours, masters' and PhD levels at any given time.

As head of SU's Department of Earth Sciences, he may be spending less time in the field than earlier in his career. Yet, only next week he is on his way to Barberton with a group of PhD-students and colleagues as part of a South African-French research collaboration into the stabilisation of the earliest continents.

The award was announced at the GSSA Fellows Luncheon in Johannesburg on Saturday 13 November 2021.

On the photo above, Prof Alex Kisters. Photo: Stefan Els