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Young ecologist receives prestigious Robert May award
Author: Media & Communication, Faculty of Science
Published: 05/05/2020

​​​​​Dr Corneile Minnaar, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University (SU), was awarded the Robert May early career researcher award for the best paper published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution (MEE) in 2019.

This annual award is named after Lord May from the University of Oxford. Robert May was a physicist and ecologist, best known for applying mathematical techniques to understand the relationship between complexity and stability in natural communities. Along with the prize, the winner also receives £250 and membership of the British Ecological Society (BES).

Dr Minnaar received the award for his article “Using quantum dots as pollen labels to track the fates of individual pollen grains". The article is based on work for his PhD under the guidance of Prof Bruce Anderson of the Department of Botany and Zoology at SU.

Dr Minnaar explains: “A central component of an organism's fitness is its ability to successfully reproduce. This includes finding a potential mate and successful mating. For plants, movement of pollen from an anther to a conspecific stigma is essential for successful reproduction, but directly tracking movement of individual pollen grains heretofore has been impossible."

This is important, because knowing how pollen move around, and whether or not they successfully fertilise ovules, is central to understanding the evolution of ecology of flowering plants and floral traits.

Dr Minnaar used quantum dots to track pollen grains by placing very small volumes of quantum dots (suspended in hexane) directly onto anthers and following the movement of the dots from one plant to another.

According to a media release from the British Ecological Society, this cost-effective methodology, at about US$0.02 per flower, will provide new opportunities to explore central open questions in plant biology.

The method has now been published and Dr Minnaar has since been awarded an NRF Innovation Postdoctoral Fellowship, as well as a Technology and Innovation Seed Fund grant. He is currently working closely with industry partners such as Koppert Biological Systems to develop more sustainable and effective pollination methods.

Minnaar says he is grateful for the fact that the journal has formally recognised the painstaking effort of method development: “Methods developed for studies of ecology and evolution used to be relegated to supplementary materials, scribbled in notebooks or shared between colleagues. For this reason, this journal [Methods in Ecology in Evolution] is one of my favorite journals."