Dewidine van der Colff decided in her Grade 10 year that she wanted to work in nature, even though she wasn't sure how or what course to take.
After completing an MSc (cum laude) in Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University, she now works as a Red List Scientist for the Botanical Society of South Africa at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).
She agreed to answer a few questions about her study and career choices so far:
Why and when did you decide to study for a BSc-degree?
In grade 10 I made my mind up that I wanted to work with and in nature. I wasn't sure precisely how or what course to take, but I knew I needed to study science.
The trigger for this very specific career choice was brought on when I witnessed an entire wetland being demolished to build low cost housing. I started to wonder: "Who makes the decisions to build where and who decides which natural areas are important or not?"
I then asked my relatives to assist me in finding information about careers and degree courses focusing on the study of the natural environment which resulted on me enrolling for a BSc degree at Stellenbosch University.
Did you already have a good idea of what you wanted to become one day when you registered for a BSc-degree?
Not precisely, I knew I wanted to focus on plants (botany). I inherently love animals but would not want to do research focused on them. My interest in botany opened many doors for me: in my third year, my lecturer gave me the opportunity to join her postgraduate students on their fieldtrips to be a field assistant. Along the way I met volunteer groups working on plant monitoring as part of the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW), which is the project I'm working for today.
What are your qualifications thus far and where did you obtain them?
I completed my MSc degree cum laude at Stellenbosch University in 2014. I plan on starting my PhD in the next two years, and I'm currently searching for an appropriate project which affords me the opportunity to study abroad to get international research exposure.
What was your first job and how did you get it?
I was an environmental officer at Rheinmetall Denel Munitions. I was a bursary holder and had a work-back commitment for a year after I completed my BSc (Hon) degree.
What is your current employment? Please describe a typical day in your life.
I'm currently a Red List Scientist, employed by the Botanical Society of South Africa, seconded to the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). Within SANBI more specifically within the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) Programme which falls under the Threatened Species Programme. This may come across as a very complicated employment structure, but all of these entities work together towards updating and maintaining South Africa's Red Lists for Plants and Animals.
A typical day for me would be to go into the field (which would be an area of natural/transformed veld somewhere in the country) to search for a specific plant species and to collect data pertaining to red-listing criteria such as population size and threats that relate to its risk of extinct.
The field data is then processed back in the office for doing an IUCN Red List species assessment according to prescribed procedures (a scientific process by which you use all available data on a species to determine its risk of extinction. This information is used in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process and for conservation projects at the provincial and national level. The work I am doing is a combination of field work, data analysis and reporting.
What is exciting about your work? What is really challenging?
I travel a lot, which is both exciting and challenging. Our work takes us to very remote places in order to find our special plants and to collect valuable data about these species that may ultimately be valuable to protect their future existence. The main challenge is that being away from home for long periods can place a strain on personal relationships. But it is amazing to see places that I know I would never had visited if I wasn't doing this job. This job also provides the opportunity to network with a great variety of stakeholders and is a great opportunity for personal development, and to learn new skills continuously.
Your advice to learners considering a career in science?
Get information about career options by asking questions of people from a diversity of jobs and lifestyles. Use the information resources that you have to find out about possible career options - Google it! Try and do this before Grade 10, when you need to select your subjects. Please, I'm a botanist and I don't like mathematics, but it is essential. I worked hard and I passed it. Don't be afraid to do mathematics and science at school, practice makes perfect. And you broaden your options when you get to matric if you have those two subjects.
Tips for students entering the job market?
Always be proactive, don't wait for things to come to you; there are many Bobs and Marys out there, so you need to make people around you know your worth. Utilise every opportunity that you get to show your skills and don't be scared to tackle something that is challenging as you will learn from mistakes and grow in experience.
Also, do not suffer in silence. It is better to inform your supervisor early on that you don't understand, rather than waiting a day before your deadline. So don't be afraid to ask questions early on. People remember the one who did the job correctly, not the one who did it the fastest; I learnt that the hard way.
What would you have done differently during your years at university?
I would have taken part in more social and volunteer activities while being a student. This broadens your way of thinking as studying is not just about the academic side but understanding people and learning how to communicate thoughts. Also learning to think differently about the same topic is something you learn during exchanges on hiking trips and at other such events. You also get to know non-science students when you do things outside of your department.
Anything else you would like to add?
Never say you couldn't study further because there wasn't funding or that you didn't know. In this day and age there are so many sources of information and too many opportunities to apply for bursaries to say you didn't know.
For more profiles of our BSc alumni, go to Science Alumni News
If you have an interesting career in science that you want to share, email your information to firstname.lastname@example.org