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UWC Academic – and former grass cutter - selected to co-lead an international UN programme

Author: Harriet Box

A Cape Flats boy went from cutting grass for a living to becoming a University of the Western Cape academic and joining the world’s top scientists to save the world’s oceans.

(Published - 28 August 2020)

A Cape Flats boy went from cutting grass for a living to joining the world’s top scientists to save the world’s oceans.

After he matriculated he got a job as a grass cutter for the SA Navy alongside ex-convicts who encouraged him to do better.

Now Dr Riaan Cedras from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) will be one of the leaders – along with Dr Joshua Baghdady from the University of Hawaii in Honolulu - of an international programme to help achieve greater sustainability of the world’s oceans. 

He will give life to the United Nations (UN) motto: “The Science We Need for the Ocean We Want”. The motto was created for the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development that will start in 2021 and end in 2030. The threat to our oceans and the survival of marine life is undeniable. The objective of these scientists is to preserve our oceans for future generations.

“It is an exceptional honour to have been the only academic to be hand-picked to represent South Africa from among all of the other South African universities,” said Dr Cedras. It is a valuable chance at an opportunity to collaborate with Early Career Ocean Professionals from universities around the world.”

It will be a precarious balancing act for the lecturer in the Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at UWC as he engages in the implementation plan for the UN Decade of Ocean Science programme beyond the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

After he obtained his PhD in 2017 at UWC his career skyrocketed. Apart from becoming one of the top scholars that year, he would never have guessed that his inspirational personal story – that made headlines at the time – would continue with him on his path to success.

“I still can’t believe that l form part of a team that would help me contribute to an improved state of the world’s oceans. It is a mere five months away and work has been ongoing in preparation for the launch of the programme,” said Dr Cedras, who is Chair of the Western Indian Ocean Early Career Scientists Network (WIO-ECSN).

His current focus is on the human development of young African researchers and to provide strategies to guide the WIO-ECSN towards the development of research capacity and human development in marine research.

“I enjoy the fact that this deepens the UWC footprint on the African continent.” He was invited by the UN Decade - at an event in Nairobi, Kenya in January of this year - to set a regional vision for Africa’s next generation of ocean scientists.

“The work involves participation from the working team, and the emphasis is on transformative approaches to solving our world oceans’ challenges. The ultimate goal is to find better ways of doing things in favour of both our oceans and the people who depend on them.”

For example, his task team, Networks of Networks, will ensure that global networks can access and connect to the Decade to ensure that it supports the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and communicating work at their regional levels.

Dr Baghdady is looking forward to fostering a diverse, productive, and rewarding team which ties into the Decade’s overarching goals. “I am excited to co-lead the Network of Networks ECOP Task Team with Dr Cedras and Dr Maha Cziesielski, ASLO Science Fellow from Communication and Policy, Washington, D.C,” said Dr Baghdady. 

The Decade will require a coordinated global effort by all stakeholders and relevant partnership participation through strong regional collaborations. 

“Here at home, my personal focus will be to work on capacity and human building skills initiatives that will be specifically for early career scientists. It will include joint publications, facilitating conference workshops and promoting WIO research. This will be beneficial in providing Africa with representation in the Indian Ocean,” said Dr Cedras. 

As for his research endeavours, he evaluates the need for long-term monitoring and research on plankton communities and engages in studying the effects of environmental stressors on the physiology of key plankton groups around South Africa and the WIO region. He says his community involvement is what makes his current success even more rewarding.

Dr Cedras wants to continue being involved in community upliftment in economically challenged areas of Cape Town. “I want to see learners who passed matric well, be fully informed about what options are available to them in terms of bursaries and study loans.”

As part of his community outreach participation, Cedras also regularly engages in live Youtube online platforms with the Future Me Pathfinder Programme and the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project. 

More about Dr Riaan Cedras:


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