ECR Interview Series

Dr Jemma Finch: wild about wetlands

The second in our series of interviews with SASQUA ECRs, this week we speak to Dr Jemma Finch of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Surveying salt marshes at the Kariega Estuary as part of our research into sea-level change together with Kate Strachan, Rob Barnett and Trevor Hill (not pictured).

What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding that people have about your discipline?

Describing mangrove core lithologies together with students at Mtunzini, KZN North Coast

There seems to be a perception that research into past climates and environments is somehow esoteric or lacking real world application. In fact, many of the datasets generated by the palaeosciences feed into data-model comparisons that help us better climate variability and change, which is particularly important in relatively understudied regions such as southern Africa. A fancy way of saying that counting pollen makes a difference!

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests? How did you come to focus on pollen and then forams?

Sampling a dead and decaying baobab stump for tree ring isotopes at Mapungubwe National Park with Patience Zisadza-Gandiwa, Grant Hall and Stephan Woodborne (not pictured)

When I started out, pollen was the obvious choice of analysis, being well established in South Africa at the time. These days there are a whole host of exciting proxies available for analyzing environmental change, with new methods being applied all the time. The idea to test out foraminifera as local sea-level indicators came out of a chance encounter with then PhD student Rob Barnett at a dating workshop in Mexico. Rob came out to SA some months later and we went out into the field and tried the method – and it worked! I’m interested in biological indicators as an extension of my biogeographical training, so the methodological aspect of each proxy application appeals to me. I’ve been fortunate to work with a range of excellent collaborators, who have exposed me to other exciting proxies and archives (Stephan Woodborne – tree ring isotopes; Melanie Leng and Matthew Wooller – sediment isotopes; Marc Humphries – sediment geochemistry and several others).

3. What was your path to your current position?

I started out doing a BSc in Zoology and Geography followed by a BSc (Hons) in Geography at the former University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. After the University merger, I continued on to study palaeoenvironments at the Mfabeni Peatland at the new University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Thereafter, I was employed as an Early Career Researcher at the University of York (UK), where I conducted research into past environmental change of the biodiverse Eastern Arc Mountains in Tanzania under the supervision of Dr Rob Marchant. I returned to South Africa to take up a postdoc at the University of Cape Town with Prof Mike Meadows, looking at Drakensberg palaeoenvironments. I then took up a lectureship in Geography at UKZN in Westville. A few years later I was transferred to ‘Maritzburg, coming full circle and ending up back where I started!

4. You seem to be very passionate about KwaZulu-Natal’s wildlife and soggy wetlands – where are the can’t-miss places for a Quaternary scientist to visit in KZN?

On our way to core the wetland in Catchment VI at Cathedral Peak, KZN Drakensberg, with Trevor Hill and Jared Lodder (not pictured)

I always think St Lucia is a fascinating place to visit, between the lake itself, the views over the impressive Mfabeni Peatland, and some nice wildlife sightings along the way, it’s well worth a trip. In a hypothetical world without field permits, the chance to walk through Mfabeni and marvel at the 10 m of peat below you, continuously accumulating for some 50,000 years is mind boggling. Sinking in up to your shoulders when very wet is quite an experience. Watch out for the hippos! The majestic Drakensberg is full of wetlands to satisfy any bogtrotter… And if you can get the wonderful Chrissie Sievers to take you there, Sibudu Cave is awe-inspiring.

What do you do in your spare time?

Two small future fieldwork assistants

Most of my time these days is dedicated to bringing up two little people. When I get the chance, I love to spend lazy afternoons walking the dogs, taking in the great outdoors and enjoying this wonderful country.

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