This year we are initiating a new series of interviews with early-career researchers to highlight the dynamism of the SASQUA research community! From pollen to isotopes to digital landscapes, we’ve got it covered!

Dr Abi Stone: silly for sand

Digging a hole…

Our latest blog post interviews Dr Abi Stone, senior lecturer at the University of Manchester, who tells us about the drama of desert fieldwork and the importance of sand.

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

Footprints in the Namib Sand Sea

This is a great question, and there is a range of answers depending on which group of people I think about, and I’ll consider two examples. First, there can be a perception from people who know little about drylands and deserts that they are both unpopulated and rather empty and static. In fact the landscapes, environments, climate and weather conditions within drylands are extremely dynamic from seasonal-scale right up to the 100 ka paced Milankovitch cycles. In addition, drylands today are home to more than 2 billion people, and a large part of the story of the evolution of our species can be found in dryland regions.

Secondly, as a scientist who focusses on providing chronological control for dryland sand-rich sediments and carbonates, within the research community there can be a misunderstanding, or simplified perception, that producing the chronology is the straightforward bit, and that dates for samples can be ‘bought’ through shipping samples to a commercial service. In fact a full appreciation of the field setting and a full appreciation of the intricacies and limitations of the chronological methodology need to come together in order to produce numbers that are meaningful. It is relatively easy to produce numbers (with error ranges) but these numbers can all too easily be incorrect within the context of dating an event. In short, the numbers will be meaningless unless you understand the process by which your material got to a site and understand the suitability of the characteristics of the sample to the various laboratory protocols that are available and continue to develop at pace. Therefore, if you want to reconstruct the past you need to work carefully and holistically as a geomorphologist, a geochronologist and a Quaternary Scientist.

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests – how did you get interested in dryland climates?

Science outreach

I was a Geography undergraduate student and became particularly fascinated by Quaternary Science and Geomorphology. In particular learning that glowing sand contained information about how long it had been buried, and that this could allow us to step back into the past and reconstruct how landscapes and environments changed through time. Following an MSc I applied for a PhD that offered me the opportunity to explore Quaternary dynamics within Namibia. There was flexibility to develop a broad perspective and set of research objectives that included exploring both dryland dunefields and semi-arid hydrological systems through applying luminescence dating and uranium-series dating. Once I was in Namibia for fieldwork, and in a dryland for the first time, I was hooked. The landscape. The open horizon. The sense of a vastness that is both stretched out for the eye and stretches your imagination as you consider the time and range of processes it took in order for the landscape to be presenting that view to you at that moment. 

I’ve been working within southern Africa and in Saudi Arabia over the past decade and it was a pleasure to work as the secretary of SASQUA for two years, getting to know a wider spectrum of the Quaternary community working in South Africa.

What was your path to your current position in Manchester?

Swimming in the sea near Dune du Pilat, France

Following my PhD I had a slightly atypical progression toward my current senior lectureship in Manchester, in that I did not have a postdoctoral research position. This owed in part to the job market and in part to some unexpected health challenges that saw me yo-yo in and out of the surgical theatre. However, there was the flexibility to work part-time in various jobs as a receptionist for the Wellcome Trust, as a live-in carer for someone with MS, and as a Junior Dean (or pastoral warden) at an Oxford University college. Through some persistence, continuing to write papers, and through the support of amazing mentors, such as Heather Viles and Richard Washington, I then had a part-time research position working on building stone decay and a range of teaching duties across a number of the colleges in Oxford. I was awarded a Thesiger-Oman Fellowship at the time that I was also offered a job with the UK Met office, and was delighted to take the opportunity to continue with drylands research. The clouds from those few darker years continued to clear when I got a full time job as an Early Career researcher and tutor (or Supernumerary Fellow in the baffling language of Oxford University) at St John’s College. At this time I had the great fortune to work with the late Mike Edmunds, during which time I expanded my drylands research interests into the world of hydrogeology, and also worked as a teaching fellow for the groundwater science component of an MSc course. I moved to Manchester to start my lectureship in 2014 and then on through the academic hoop-jumping to senior lecturer in 2018. I continue to contribute as a guest lecturer on the MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management.

I am extremely grateful to colleagues and collaborators, particularly for the teamwork during navigating fieldwork, laboratory work and puzzles of data analysis, and also for the fantastic friendships, encouragement and excitement for science that gets fostered through conferences and during work for research associations.

You spend a lot of time out in dry, dusty places – what advice would you offer someone heading out to do research in the desert for the first time?

Assessing the damage

It is wise to invest in a good pair of desert boots to protect your feet and ankles but also allow your feet to breathe a bit. If you are going to be heading somewhere remote and off-road, look into a 4×4 off road driving training course to build your confidence and certainly at the least learn how to change a tyre. I am very grateful to Dave Thomas for the brief airport carpark tutorial about where to position a jack underneath a Toyota Hilux, as a few days later I was faced with not one but two punctures on the C27. More generally, spend plenty of time planning your research trip, including who you can be in contact with locally on the ground and where you will get your fuel, and make sure to carry spare fuel, water and food.

What do you do in your spare time?

Ginnel gardening with neighbours in Manchester

I love to keep moving, whether that is travelling (not just to drylands but to a range of rural and urban locations across the world) or during the working week swimming, cycling, and playing 5-aside football. Manchester is also a great place to socialise with friends and loved ones for food and drinks, live music, theatre and sporting fixtures. I’ve also recently had the chance to hone some DIY skills and gardening (or yardening and ginnel-gardening) on the canvas of a very Mancunian early 1900s red brick terraced house.  I also love to take photographs, including whilst on fieldwork in drylands.


This summer we will be initiating a brand new series of interviews with early-career researchers to highlight the dynamism of the SASQUA research community! From pollen to isotopes to digital landscapes, we’ve got it covered!

Dr Vincent Hare: mad about models (and data)

This week we’re talking to Dr Vincent Hare of the University of Cape Town Department of Archaeology about his passion for climate science, and the challenges facing ECRs in the academic job market today.

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

Sampling a core

It is hard for people to see how palaeoclimatology and chronology are relevant to their daily lives. For some, knowing that the climate has changed in the deeper past is seen as comfort and justification, rather than cause for serious alarm. I think it’s fair to say that the changes we will see in our lifetimes were unprecedented in the entire Quaternary. And with climate change at our doorstep, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations rapidly returning the Earth to a climatological state last seen in the Pliocene or earlier, it can get depressing to have advanced notice about a tragedy before it plays out in real time. And as a scientist it can be frustrating that public perception and political policy is so slow-moving.

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests? How did you come to focus on climate modelling, given your background in stable isotopes and chronology?

Inspecting the mass spec

I don’t know how to categorise myself. I have an undergraduate background in Physics, Environmental Science, and Archaeology, so I am interested in the intersections of all three of these fields (not always easy!). Some of my research is focussed on developing dating methods – and a lot of these come from applied physics and nuclear chemistry – but I also have interests in stable isotopes, and climatology. I think my numerical background has opened up many interesting avenues, and has facilitated my more recent interest in modelling. Climate models are important for two reasons; first, they bridge the gap between past climates and future predictions (since the models which predict future climate in the IPCC reports – CMIP – are often also used for palaeoclimatology at the LGM an so forth). So testing models in the past is actually really important for our present situation. Second, the more accurate modelling becomes, the more it enriches our knowledge of the fossil record – allowing us to say all kinds of things about past sea levels, terrestrial temperatures, and so forth.

Research wise, inconsistencies fascinate me – they often suggest a deeper unresolved question which, if solved, can lead to new science. Ideally, I like to think I’m driven by these inconsistencies and not by the thought of immediate “impact”: citations, h-factor, etc. In my view, these metrics are more or less arbitrary (particularly at ECR level) and ultimately affect the way in which we do science by incentivising short-term, low-hanging research. We sometimes need to think bigger! I consider myself lucky in my research career to have been given the freedom to pursue bold ideas without fear of dead-ends, and part of what I want to do is to protect that ability for future scientists, and allow them similar opportunities.

What was your path to your current position in Cape Town?


In fact, I started at UCT, so I suppose I’ve come full circle. I did a degree in Physics, picking up majors in Environmental science and Archaeology along the way. I didn’t want to go into finance or “hard” physics, so I found the Stable Light Isotope Lab at UCT – it was a good match because I was interested in technical things – measurement – but I was also interested in past environments and climates. I published my honours research, and I was awarded a scholarship to Oxford for MSc and PhD. During my graduate studies my interests mushroomed – it seemed there was plenty of use for physics in archaeology and environmental science. And so I simply followed what interested me –  from archaeomagnetism, to the effects of CO2 concentrations on plant carbon isotopes, to novel dating techniques. After PhD things got much harder, because I no longer had that freedom to pursue my own research. I did a postdoc in the USA, in a palaeomagnetism laboratory. I learnt that postdoctoral research under the instruction of my PI did not suit me – it did not feel collaborative – and so I returned to the Stable Light Isotope Laboratory, first for a postdoc, then for my current position. In the process of these two postdoctoral positions, I made over 17 other postdoctoral fellowship applications -which I thought were excellent – and got no interviews. Later, I learnt that my experience was not unique; in today’s University environment roughly 1 in 20 postdocs eventually end up in faculty positions. It’s been quite a journey, and it has made me aware of the structural problems in academia – something I would like to help to fix.

Having experienced first-hand the academic systems of three countries (USA, UK and South Africa) do you have any thoughts on the advantages of remaining in SA to do research or looking for opportunities abroad?

Vince in the wild

Although there are huge opportunities and resources in the USA, and the country is an immensely productive engine of science, my sense is that the work culture there can be particularly brutal, particularly for ECRs. This is ultimately a self-defeating strategy because it causes many superb researchers to leave the field, disgruntled and disillusioned with the US Academic system.  

I’m cautiously optimistic about South Africa. In the palaeosciences, funding is somewhat easier to obtain, although the amounts are much smaller than overseas, so you have to be really creative here and use the money wisely (which is a good thing, on balance). There are many challenges, but considering the best young minds in Africa choose us as a destination for study, we should have the advantage.

Sadly, all science is dependent on political stability, and South Africa is haemorrhaging money to corruption, and skilled people are leaving for greener pastures. The two trends then reinforce each other – more skilled people leave, and more corruption sets in. My hope is that the changes we can affect as scientists and educators can multiply faster than the trend towards economic and ecological collapse. It probably won’t, but we have to try!

I’ll also add that the voices of African scientists are so important; they enrich the field enormously. It’s important that we nurture – and keep – home grown talent. And with European, American, and Chinese academics so focussed on their own hyper-competitive environments, and becoming ever more cut-throat, my feeling is that they have less and less time for African scientists. Something will have to change.  

What do you do in your spare time?

In the orchard

Ah, the elusive work-life balance! The problem here is that when I have spare time, and relax, that’s when ideas for projects tend to come, so it’s counterproductive! But I’m working at achieving more of a balance. It’s surprisingly hard. I read as much as I can. I play music. I am lucky enough to be responsible for a small grove of olive and lime trees in the Karoo, which need to be fed, watered, and kept disease-free. Farming is often frustrating work, with factors outside of the farmer’s control, but it is eventually satisfying to see the finished product once or twice a year. So perhaps, in that respect, it is similar to academic research!

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.


This summer we will be initiating a brand new series of interviews with early-career researchers to highlight the dynamism of the SASQUA research community! From pollen to isotopes to digital landscapes, we’ve got it covered!

Irene with family, in traditional Valencian attire

Dr Irene Esteban: Serious about silica

This series kicks off with Dr Irene Esteban of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits. Originally, hailing from Spain, Irene has made Jo’burg her home, and is making exciting new contributions to southern African phytolith studies.

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

Excavations at Waterfall Bluff

Some researchers believe that phytoliths have very low palaeobotanical resolution, and are therefore less important than other sub-disciplines like pollen and charcoal. Whether this is true or not, and to what extent, is up for debate. However, I find that: 1) some researchers use phytoliths in a very simplistic way, and consider one group e.g. grasses to be more important while ignoring the rest of the assemblage; and 2) the full potential of phytoliths for archaeological and palaeoenvironmental research is often not exploited.  Both of these are possible reasons for this line of thinking, and the associated underestimation of the usefulness of phytoliths in interpreting palaeoenvironments and the archaeological record. What is unquestionable is the usefulness of phytoliths and infrared spectroscopy in archaeology for understanding taphonomical patterns and to shed light on plant use, pyrotechnology and site occupation patterns.

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

Irene with her familiar, Blackie

I was an archaeology graduate student when I met Rosa María Albert from the University of Barcelona. She was involved in an international archaeological project focusing on the South African Middle Stone Age and was looking for a PhD student. After doing some research and finding out more about what phytoliths were, and how useful they can be for archaeology, I decided to accept the offer! Since then I have been learning about archaeobotany, phytoliths, and Mediterranean vegetation, with special attention on the Cape flora of South Africa and African archaeology. Currently, my postdoctoral research builds on my PhD project, and aims at understanding plant foraging strategies in relation to habitat settings and its coupled response to climate changes during the South African Late Pleistocene. For this, I use phytoliths and, increasingly, other bio-silica microfossils like diatoms and sponge spicules.

You’re a great advocate for Johannesburg, it seems like you’ve really made it your home – what was your path to your current position?

In 2015, I received a European scholarship of 6 months for a mobility doctoral program at the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) of Wits University.  I met very nice people upon my arrival in Johannesburg; and I found the ESI to be an international, dynamic, scientifically diverse, and socially active institute. These two main aspects made me love Joburg. After I came back to Spain, and finished my PhD dissertation, I decided to apply for a post-doctoral fellowship to come back to the ESI.

You’re co-leading an exciting new archaeological project in the Eastern Cape – can you tell us a bit about it?

The beauty of Pondoland

The Pondoland Palaeoclimate, Palaeoenvironment, Palaeoecology, and Palaeoanthropology Project (P5) synergizes researchers from several international universities and disciplines to answer questions about the evolution of human behavioural variability in persistent coastal environments. The results of the archaeological work we are conducting in the Pondoland coast (Eastern Cape) will provide insight into the variability of hunter-gatherer behaviour in a persistent coastal context across a glacial/interglacial cycle. Our project, “Human occupation and adaptation in a persistent coastal environment” recently received funding from the US National Science Foundation and we are excited about renewing the excavations at Waterfall Bluff rock shelter during May/June 2019. 

What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any recommendations for newbies to Joburg?


My philosophy is: work hard, play hard; and against laziness, diligence :). After long working days, I free up my mind and reload my energy by jogando (playing) capoeira and dancing salsa. I also always have time over the weekends for meeting up with friends and loved ones for cooking, braaing and drinks!

I would recommend downloading Uber or Bolt, and moving around! Go to 7th Street in Melville; go to Maboneng on a Sunday; walk around Johannesburg Botanical Gardens and Emmarentia Dam; look for the numerous farm and organic markets; visit the Origins Centre and Apartheid museums, and many others. Joburg is a cosmopolitan and dynamic city, with a great cultural, leisure and business offer.

Updated ECR Blog Page

This page will (soon) present a new series of interviews with ECR members of SASQUA – coming soon for launch in early July. Watch this space!!

We would also love to host posts by SASQUA members on topics relevant to the ECR community, related to career development, job searches, work/life balance, etc. Please get in touch with the ECR rep, Emma Loftus (; @emma_j_loftus), if you have any suggestions or would like to write a post for the community.

News about job listings will appear on our Twitter and Facebook social pages.

Sign up for the following lists – these forums have a very wide reach and send out a lot of opportunities!

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