Since she was seven years old, Dr Melissa Boonzaaier-Davids, like most kids her age, had an inquisitive mind. She said although she was not able to fully comprehend it at the time, she wanted to have deeper understanding of the oceans and marine life.
“From then on, I knew I needed to study the ocean. At first, I wanted to be a mermaid, then a lifeguard, then a pirate. Only later, in my primary school years, did I hear about the term marine biology. And I thought, ‘there it is, that’s the word I’ve been looking for,” she told the Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve (CWBR) during an interview last year.
Fulfilling a childhood dream
Her passion for marine life was given further impetus by her uncle who was a biology teacher and an aunt working in conservation and the impact of invasive tree species. Since then she steadfastly pursued her dream with a degree in marine sciences. She started off by studying Biodiversity and Ecology, focusing on marine-related modules at Stellenbosch University where she earned her BSc and BSc (Hons) degree.
A NGS grant further paved the way
Today she is a highly rated marine life specialists recently received a a grant from the National Geographic Society (NGS) to carry out research on marine invertebrates – moss animals also known as bryozoans. Currently Dr Boonzaaier-Davids is a Post-doctoral Fellow under the National Research Foundation’s Professional Development Programme. Her focus is on closing biodiversity knowledge gaps through examining undetermined museum collections and sampling in areas along the coastline where gaps exist. Based at the Iziko South African Museumin Cape Town, she is supervised by fellow UWC alumnus, Dr Wayne Florence.
According to the CWBR, Dr Boonzaaier-Davids and her marine biology team oversee more than 129,000 preserved marine specimens, some dating back nearly 200 years. She says being associated with the iconic Iziko Museums, established in 1825, fulfils her love for scientific study of marine creatures and also affords her an opportunity to learn about human’s origin and existence.
“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 who are based at Iziko Museums, has considerable taxonomic knowledge and experience working on these marine invertebrate groups,” she says.
“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.” As part of the project, Dr Boonzaaier-Davids has trained and qualified as a class IV commercial diver in February 2022. This will enable her to dive down and collect (fresh) samples up to 30 meters deep.
Early Career Grant offers unique opportunities
She says what makes the project even more exciting is that the team would be sampling in areas where very little or no data exists; meaning new species and species records are likely to be discovered. The Early Career Grant afforded them an opportunity to significantly impact existing foundational biodiversity information and knowledge which will ultimately improve policy decision-making and create new economic opportunities.
Encouraging young girls
“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!”, she says. The research is due to be completed in November this year.