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.