Top Marine Science Award goes to UWC’s Prof Mark Gibbons
Held every three years, the South African Marine Science Symposium (SAMSS) attempts to bring together marine scientists from across southern Africa to present their research to the broader marine science community. At the 15th SAMSS event, held at Stellenbosch University from 15-18 July 2014, Prof Mark Gibbons, head of UWC's Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, was one of two recipients of the prestigious Gilchrist Memorial Award.
The award was established in 1987 by the old South African National Committee for Oceanographic Research (SANCOR). Named in honour of John D.F. Gilchrist, considered the father of South African marine science, it serves as recognition of the recipients’ contributions to marine science, to further stimulate excellence in South African marine science, and to focus attention on South Africa’s marine and coastal environments.
Prof Gibbons, one of the youngest-ever recipients of the Gilchrist Medal, is perhaps best known for his work on the ecology of ocean and offshore systems, and his particular interest in zooplankton. His recent research has focused on gelatinous zooplankton (better known as jellyfish) and the pelagic goby off Namibia – organisms that have increased in abundance in the northern Benguela upwelling system since the collapse of the sardine populations there at the end of the 1960s, providing a telling example of what might happen to other systems around the world through overfishing.
He's published 92 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals (including such top international publications as TREE, Nature, Science and Current Biology), and authored/co-authored 6 book chapters, 14 technical reports and 23 popular science articles.
“It is a special honour to receive this award that has been given to a small number of 'the great and the good' for their contributions to marine science,” he notes. “Firstly, because it says that I have made the grade, but more importantly (to me) because it also says that UWC has made the grade.”
UWC has not always been recognised as a traditional centre of marine biology research in South Africa. But Prof Gibbons and his colleagues at the BCB department (together accounting for specialties in ecology, taxonomy and algal eco-physiology) are making good headway in gaining a national reputation for whole organism marine biology – with the help of colleagues in chemistry, biotechnology and pharmacy.
As the award citation notes: “[Prof Gibbons] has played a vital role in the transformation of South African marine science and many of his past students are playing key roles in the Department of Environmental Affairs and other Governmental agencies tasked with directing the marine conservation agenda for our country... Through his committed research, he has ensured that the University of Western Cape can be regarded as a key role player in the marine science fraternity.”
Prof Gibbons currently supervises 5 PhD and 3 MSc students, and has successfully supervised 25 BSc Honours, 14 MSc and 5 PhD students, the bulk of whom are from previously disadvantaged backgrounds.
“I believe in what UWC stands for,” he says, “and what it is trying to do for the country and its citizenry. For me, there is no other institution – the students here at UWC have provided not only support and inspiration, but also opportunities, and when ‘my’ students leave and find their way in the world, I really feel that I am making a difference.”
Completely independent of the award, Prof Gibbons also delivered the final plenary keynote address of the SAMSS conference: Prof Gibbons’ topic, How can we, as a southern African marine science community, improve our ability to understand SEACHANGE? An illustrative case study, used his goby work as a vehicle to highlight gaps in our national expertise, then explored possible reasons for the gaps, presented some thought-provoking statistics (on who we are as a community of marine biologists) and concluded by challenging South African marine scientists and institutions to be more collaborative rather than competitive in these fast changing times.
Collaboration is something he believes in very strongly. He serves on a number of science advisory boards both locally and internationally, and has research collaborators at the University of Bergen in Norway, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (Australia's national science agency) and at the National Marine Information and Research Centre in Swakopmund, Namibia.
“Hard work, patience and perseverance, curiosity and creativity – these are important for success,” he says. “But we cannot succeed on our own; we need others. We need support along the way, we need people that inspire, motivate and draw us onwards, and we need people that provide opportunities for us, that open serendipitous doors that allow us to move our careers forward. I have been blessed with fantastic people along the way, and my success is largely down to them.”