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SAEON intern wins prestigious international Fellowship

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As a master's student in South Africa, Emma studied how the forests were creeping into the savanna. She wanted to know what would happen to the ecosystem if we lost Africa's great savannas.

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Emma in action during the poster session at the UNESCO headquarters

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Emma is congratulated by Thivhilaeli Makatu, Counsellor: Multilateral, South African Embassy to France and Permanent Delegation to UNESCO

Emma Gray is one of 15 women from around the world awarded one of this year's $20,000 UNESCO-L'Oréal For Women in Science International Fellowships, which support talented young women scientists to take up research positions and continue their studies abroad.

The young scientist from South Africa received her prize in Paris on 19 March. The Fellowship has provided Emma the opportunity to study in Australia.

Emma worked as an intern at the SAEON Fynbos Node from July 2012 to June 2013 and continued to work for SAEON for a further three months after her internship ended and before starting her PhD in Australia. She was also a member of SAEON’s Graduate Student Network Committee).

Emma tackles global problem of forests creeping into savanna

As a master's student in South Africa, Emma studied how the forests were creeping into the savanna. 'Bush encroachment' is a global phenomenon caused in large part by climate and land use change, and Emma looked at how it affects biodiversity and the carbon cycle.

"I wanted to know how ecosystem services would be affected if large portions of Africa's great savannas became forested," says Emma.

"Aside from the impacts on the water cycle, fire regimes, and plant biodiversity, it will also impact grazing availability, reducing the health of zebra, lion, and other iconic animal populations. Tourism will struggle as it becomes more and more difficult for tourists to spot the animals they came to see."

Her work at the SAEON Fynbos Node, under the mentorship of Dr Jasper Slingsby, focused on understanding climatic drivers of turnover in plant diversity in the Cape Floristic Region, and how change in these parameters may alter patterns of plant diversity.

Now, as a PhD student at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, Emma is looking at the basic science that underpins the growth of plants. Her work will form part of a larger Australian Research Council funded project to understand how plant traits affect plant growth rates.

"This is one of the central questions in ecology, particularly as we try to understand how climate change will affect the distribution of forests, grasslands and other ecosystems," says Emma.

"It's nearly impossible to model 'reality', when there are so many species to account for. To understand the changes we're seeing from climate change, we need to simplify ecosystems."

Her research aims to understand the trade-offs between different plant traits, and how these relate to species growth rates. For example, how is the growth of a tree affected by the size of its leaves or the density of its wood?

"I'm particularly interested in how these factors affect a plant's growth rate differently over its life. A lot of what we know so far is based on seedlings, but trees can live for hundreds of years, and as they develop their requirements change," says Emma.

Emma's work will contribute to models which could help us predict how ecosystems might be affected by climate change, and help us understand how plants interact with each other and the environment.

Source: UNESCO-L'Oréal media release

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This year, 15 women from around the world were awarded a UNESCO-L'Oréal For Women in Science International Fellowship. South Africa's Emma Gray is in the back row, second from left.

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