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Soaking up sapflow in Ghent


SAEON graduate student Robert Skelton participated in the International Workshop on Sapflow and had the opportunity to interact with some of the leading experts in the field.


The conference took place in ‘Het Pand’, an old Dominican Monastery in Ghent built in the 13th century.

By Robert Skelton, SAEON graduate student

In early June, I set off to Ghent in Belgium to attend the 9th International Workshop on Sapflow.

Perhaps an immediate impression to many readers may be that this is an unfamiliar setting for a conference on an obscure topic, but I was thrilled to be going.

Using sapflow to monitor fynbos species

Sapflow is the technology of using the movement or dissipation of heat to monitor the movement of water through a plant and I consider it to be an important tool in plant physiology. Throughout my PhD I have been developing and using miniature sapflow sensors to monitor the response of fynbos species to environmental drivers.

The conference provided an excellent opportunity for me to present my most recent findings and to interact with some of the leading experts in the field.

The medieval town of Ghent

I arrived in Ghent the day before the conference started and immediately set about exploring the city and finding my bearings. I discovered that it is a medieval town set in the north west of Belgium (about a 40 minute train ride from Brussels). It is like Bruges, but less touristy (and therefore better, say the locals).

The presence of the university is strong - loads of students lined the banks of the canals during the evenings, creating a convivial atmosphere. The gothic buildings of the old historic centre are magnificent. One of them houses the most bizarre artwork I have ever seen: The adoration of the mystic lamb.

Entering the world of sapflow

The conference itself took place in one of the many magnificent old buildings of the city centre - an old Dominican Monastery built in the 13th century called ‘Het Pand’.

Approximately 150 delegates attended, originating from a diverse array of countries around the world. I felt this size was ideal for a conference of this nature, as it allowed me an opportunity to quickly become acquainted with many people and create new contacts. Most importantly, it allowed the organisers to host a single session, which meant I could attend every presentation, many of which were excellent.

I quickly learned that the world of sapflow is split into three main groups: the engineers, the ecologists and the agriculturalists. The engineers are interested in developing the methods and ensuring that the technology advances as it should. The agriculturalists are interested in what the sensors can tell us about the workings of crops and how this can be used to save money/resources. The ecologists are interested in seeing what the sensors can tell us about how plant communities function. I consider myself to be a part of the ecological group.

All told, the conference provided me with a tremendous opportunity to learn and to interact with some of the leaders in the field. Several “big names” (to me at least) presented plenaries and it was incredibly rewarding to listen to them. There were also several social events, which provided some of the best opportunities to meet new people.

Finally, I would like to express my enormous gratitude to SAEON for providing me with funding which partly made this trip possible. I look forward to sharing my findings and some of what I learned at the upcoming SAEON GSN Indibano .

About the author

Robert Skelton is a SAEON graduate student, receiving a bursary from the SAEON Fynbos Node. He is studying towards his PhD in the Botany Department at the University of Cape Town under the supervision of Dr Adam West.

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