As a city boy, Dr Igshaan Samuels (41) never imagined a career in agriculture. A keen interest in the environment led to studies in zoology and botany at the University of the Western Cape, and today he’s an agricultural champion.
Upon completing his Master’s degree, he completed his PhD in botany at the University of Cape Town thanks to the support from the Agricultural Research Council (ARC). Today, he is a senior research scientist in rangeland ecology and management at the ARC.
And no, becoming a research scientist doesn’t mean you’ll have your head buried in books all day. Just ask Samuels! He’ll tell you that some of his work also involves travelling to different parts of the country to meet farmers and other agriculturalists.
If this career interests you, there are links below to find out more about how you can get involved. Through AgriSETA Learner Connect we want to help guide high school learners fill the scarce and critical jobs in the agricultural sector. Over the next few weeks, we will explore many more agricultural careers for which there is a big demand.
And don’t worry, deciding on a career does not have to be as scary as it sounds. Find something you’re passionate about and engage with someone like Dr Igshaan Samuels working in the sector…
1Could you sum up your job for us? I conduct research on numerous projects related to how livestock farmers manage their animals over vast tracts of lands. I also study the impacts that livestock have on ecosystems, including plants and soils, and also look at how climate change impacts livestock farmers, especially during droughts, and what these farmers do to adapt to the changing climate. This work is mainly carried out in the arid Karoo region.
2So, what does the day-to-day of your job entail? There are two different components in my job. Firstly, when I’m not travelling, I’m at the office checking important communications from my colleagues and others (including international partners) and respond to any requests.
I engage with my students from the University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University, whom I’m co-supervise. I help them in the laboratory and review some of the drafts they have written for their theses. In the lab, they do microscope work and analyse plants and soil for its chemical content. Part of this work includes reading up on new research findings in the livestock farming sector. Since researchers often have to write about their research findings, I write papers which is sent to journals for review and publication.
I also travel to other provinces and see our beautiful country. Here I do field surveys on farms and farming areas. In the mornings the research team will go into the field and conduct measurements on different plant species, on the soils, we observe livestock see what they eat and not eat, we walk with livestock herders and talk to them about how they manage the land and the animals.
We catch, measure and release small mammals (without any harm) to study how the changes in the environment impacts them. We study insects in the landscape, and many other things. This is the fun part of my job, as you see new places, meet new people and make new friends. This is also the time where you as a city dweller find yourself in vast open spaces where you can smell the fresh air and just forget about all your worries.
What qualification do you need for this career? To be able to be an independent researcher without any supervision, you may require at least a Master’s degree in a natural science related field. However, if you prefer to be a technician in the laboratory or in the field where you support the researchers, a diploma or undergraduate degree is recommended. The degree could be in agriculture, conservation, life science, or water and climate sciences.
4What are the character traits you need to be great at your job? You have to be passionate about what you do, you need to understand that others think differently from you and need respect their opinions. You need to respect local farmers’ opinions and ways of doing things. You need to think outside the box and be flexible in your own thinking. You also need to care about other people and the environment, and you should be willing to learn.
5What subjects do I need to become a research scientist? Each institution will have its own minimum entry requirements, but recommended subjects include mathematics, physical science, life sciences chemistry, and if you’re lucky enough to be at a school that offers it, agricultural sciences.
6What do you love about agriculture as a space to work in? The discipline is always dynamic due to continual changes in the climate, environment, social, economic and policy arenas. As a result, farmers often have to come up with new ways to manage their land to make sure that they produce consistently to make a profit or to be sustainable.
As researchers, we also need to provide farmers with new information on current and future changes in the climate, current land degradation trends, etc. and advise them on alternative management options. Thus, the agricultural sector always need new knowledge to survive and this makes research important. Agricultural landscapes are also beautiful and you get to enjoy nature.
7Don’t be modest, tell us about your proudest career moments? As a researcher, your core work is to develop new knowledge, but when this knowledge is used to bring about positive changes in farming communities, including job creation, I feel proud. It’s rewarding when your research is used to restore degraded land or if it’s used to inform municipal management plans or national agricultural policies. That is when I feel very proud of my contribution that I make to this country. Also, when my students, whom are mostly from disadvantaged communities graduate, that makes me very proud.
8What do you do when you’re not at work? I enjoy spending as much time with my family. I want to live a balanced life between work and family.
9Any advice for young people who are inspired by your career story here on AgriSETA Learner Connect? Do not let where you come from dictate where you going to. If you put your head and heart into it, you can achieve great things. Agriculture is not something that I aspired to do when I grew up in the city, but it provided me with the opportunity to do general things that I always wanted to do.
That is, to help other people and the environment. I wanted to travel and see beautiful landscapes and scenery, meet new people, become a doctor, travel overseas, wanted to inspire others to work hard to lift themselves out of poverty, help my country, not worry about where my next plate of food will come from. All of these have become a reality. This is because I never gave up and decided to have a career in agriculture.
10Where can I study to become a research scientist? To become a research scientist you can study at any university in South Africa where agricultural related subjects are offered. The minimum requirement to become a scientist is a BSc degree. This will provide you with the opportunity to acquire specific knowledge and skills in the area of science to further your science career. If you’re brave enough to choose this option, you can study at any university.
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