Bringing pictures to life: Chief Scientist of the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity awarded a Doctor of Science degree

by Mar 2, 2011Wildlife News

Devoted to building and nurturing human capital development, the National Research Foundation (NRF) assesses its staff based on a performance system that not only monitors employees’ performance in the work place, but also encourages its staff to pursue career-orientated goals.

The South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) is a national facility of the NRF and Chief Scientist, Professor Alan Whitfield, who has been awarded the prestigious Doctor of Science (DSc) from Rhodes University, feels that he owes this achievement largely to the NRF’s performance system.

Sitting comfortably in his office on the second floor of SAIAB, one leg crossed over the other, Whitfield fondly recounts memories of his childhood: “I was always interested in the natural world. When I was eight, I went to the Durban Aquarium for the first time. My aunt had to battle to get me out.”

Alan Whitfield

His passion for the marine environment was developed right there. Two years later, when Whitfield was only ten years old and while other kids his age were collecting marbles, he religiously collected pictures of fish, brochures from aquariums, vacancy adverts for fish scientists and compiled these in a neat little album with brief descriptions next to each picture.

While telling me about the album he walks straight to a cupboard behind me and pulls it out: “My dad knew about my love for fish and that I wanted to become a fish scientist. So when he read the newspaper and saw something fish-related, he would call me to have a look and that is how I started my album.”

Whitfield has always felt a connection with the natural environment so much so that even when he went through a phase of switching career options like every child does, he digressed to game ranging and then wanting to become a game researcher.

Fortunately for aquatic science, this was a brief digression and Christmas holidays to visit his grandparents on the banks of the Swartkops Estuary in the Eastern Cape served to enhance his interest in the watery world.

In 1971, Whitfield attended what was then the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and Botany. He went on to do an honours degree in Zoology and then a Masters and PhD degree in Ichthyology. After completing his Masters, Whitfield moved to Sedgefield in the southern Cape where he was employed as a Research Officer at Rhodes University until 1987 when he joined the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology, now known as SAIAB. Whitfield joined SAIAB as the Principal Ichthyologist and is now the Chief Scientist. “All parts of my job are rewarding in some way,” said Whitfield. “I enjoy the field work, writing scientific papers, planning a research trip and I enjoy seeing students grow and develop.”

In his submission for the Doctor of Science degree, Whitfield acknowledges past South African Estuarine Ichthyologists for the work they have contributed to “enriching my scientific experience of these fascinating coastal ecosystems”. His research career spans 35 years with more than 130 published papers reflecting a significant contribution to the study of biology and ecology of fishes in South African estuaries.

Whitfield confesses that achieving a DSc was never a goal: “what triggered pursuing this was the NRF performance system. Every two years we are asked what new training or qualifications one is going to aim for; I thought of all the training that I would like to do -eventually settling on a DSc as the most interesting and challenging”.

When asked if he could be anything else, what that would be, Whitfield takes a 180 degree turn: “Aha, I am very interested in the investment world, especially trading on the stock exchange which has been one of my hobbies for decades. When I retire as a scientist I want to become a serious short and medium-term trader.” On his other plans for retirement, Whitfield plans to write a book on fishes and estuaries that “won’t be linked to any performance system!”

The degree will be conferred at the Rhodes University Graduation Ceremony in April.

By: Reyhana Mahomed