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7 March 2022
UWC Alumna Receives National Geographic Society Grant To Study Marine Life Of South Africa’s Coastline
University of the Western Cape (UWC) alumna Dr Melissa Boonzaaier-Davids has received a grant from the National Geographic Society to perform research on the marine invertebrate communities of the rocky shores of South Africa’s understudied coastal regions.
 
Currently, Dr Boonzaaier-Davids, known for her work on closing biodiversity knowledge gaps through examining undetermined museum collections and sampling in areas along the coastline where gaps exist, is a Postdoctoral Fellow under the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) Professional Development Programme (PDP). She is based at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town under the supervision of fellow UWC alumnus Dr Wayne Florence.
 
In 2021, she received the good news that she had received the grant from the Society shortly before learning she was pregnant. As a result, Dr Boonzaaier-Davids was forced to postpone the project start date for a few months. But being a new mom didn’t stop her from seizing the opportunity.
 
Dr Boonzaaier-Davids completed a commercial class IV diving course in
February and she will soon start with sampling and collecting fresh material.
“The project entails a lot of fieldwork at several rocky shore localities along the coastline in each of the coastal provinces collecting bryozoans (moss animals), polychaetes (bristle worms) and sea sponges. Our team, most of whom are based at Iziko Museums, has considerable taxonomic knowledge and experience working on these marine invertebrate groups,” she noted.
 
“Distribution patterns of (marine) biodiversity are influenced by environmental factors like seawater temperature, habitat types and substrate availability. Ultimately, we would like to understand the distribution and genetic diversity of several taxa along the coastline and why these patterns are there, but also how biodiversity (i.e. number of species) changes over space and time due to global change, including climate change, and other human activities like habitat destruction and pollution.” 
 
The research is due to be completed in November of this year. As part of the project, Dr Boonzaaier-Davids trained and qualified as a Class IV commercial diver in February 2022, enabling her to dive down and collect (fresh) samples up to 30 meters deep.
 
“It is an exciting project because we will be sampling in areas where we have very little to no data; meaning new species and species records will likely be discovered. The Early Career grant affords us an opportunity to significantly impact our foundational biodiversity information and knowledge, which will ultimately improve policy decision-making and create new economic opportunities.
 
“I am thrilled to be part of the global community of National Geographic Explorers! I look forward to promoting the conservation of our natural heritage and sharing these experiences, and hope we can encourage children, especially young girls, to pursue science careers and feel enthusiastic about science and discovery!”
 
Main image courtesy Nigel Pamplin/Iziko Museums. For more information, visit: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/find-explorers/melissa-kay-boonzaaier-davids
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