EucXylo hosts its very first Research Day!

Post authored by Dr Letitia Schoeman

Although the global pandemic is ongoing, the Hans Merensky Research Chair in Advanced Modelling of Eucalypt Wood Formation, also known as EucXylo, hosted its very first Research Day on the 7th of October 2021. The meeting was held as a hybrid event to accommodate both in-person and online attendees. Those who were able to attend the event in-person gathered at the STIAS Manor House in Stellenbosch and for those who could not attend in-person the full program of the day was available on a virtual platform. The event was also recorded for interested parties who could not attend on the day.

The Research Day took place at the beautiful STIAS Manor House in Stellenbosch.

The Research Day was intended to showcase the amazing research conducted by the students and postdocs, and to celebrate the wide diversity of the EucXylo research program. The talks were designed to be broadly accessible and focused on the relevance of the research in the broader scientific context. The primary aim of the Research Day was to present the students’ and postdocs’ research to the Hans Merensky Board of Trustees, the broader forestry community, and EucXylo’s industry partners. The goal was also to facilitate professional development, promote interdisciplinary interactions, foster a vibrant and collaborative scientific community, and provide students with a unique networking opportunity.

The event commenced with a word of welcome and introduction by the EucXylo research leader and holder of the Hans Merensky Chair in Advanced Modelling of Eucalypt Wood Formation, Prof. David Drew. Prof. Drew explained what we do at EucXylo and what we want to achieve. Research in the EucXylo program explores in detail the dynamics of wood formation (xylogenesis) in the extremely important group of genera known as the eucalypts, with the goal of developing mathematical and computational models of the system.

Prof David Drew, research leader and holder of the Hans Merensky Chair in Advanced Modelling of Eucalypt Wood Formation, welcomed all the participant to the first Hans Merensky Foundation Research Day.

Prof. Louise Warnich, Dean of the Faculty of Science, also provided a word of welcome and inspiration to the EucXylo team, which set the tone for the Research Day. Prof. Warnich described the day as a flagship event for the institution, where postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows could showcase their cutting-edge research projects. She acknowledged the students, mentors and partner organisations for their hard work that contributes towards shaping the EucXylo research program and the research future of the young scientists and encouraged them to keep up the good work.

Prof Louise Warnich, Dean of the Faculty of Science, provided a word of welcome and inspiration to the EucXylo team.

Presentations covered the full gamut of research undertaken at EucXylo and showcased the emerging researchers and their various study areas. This was an excellent opportunity to appreciate the importance of postgraduate research and how it fits into the broader research objectives of the EucXylo program. At EucXylo, we intend to take a Systems Biology approach to xylogenesis, linked closely to the extraordinary power of Bioinformatics. That is, we endeavour to put together the pieces of the wood formation puzzle, harnessing modern computational and systems-level analyses to formulate and answer various relevant questions which emerge as our research progresses. We hope this integrative approach will close the loop between the relevant scales which are all inextricably linked: from the population level down to the level of the developing cell.

The event welcomed 11 presenters from the EucXylo team, focusing on different areas of xylogenesis and different research/modelling scales, ranging from the stand-level to the plant, organ, tissue, cell, and molecular level. The presenters included four M.Sc. and five Ph.D. students, as well as two postdoctoral fellows. Each presentation was introduced by Prof. David Drew, to set the stage for the subsequent talk. The talks spanned a variety of topics, which demonstrated the broad range of research conducted at EucXylo. Topics included a framework for integrating data flows and concepts in eco-physiological and xylogenesis models, responsiveness and adaptability of xylogenesis dynamics in Eucalyptus cladocalyx, non-destructive and high-efficiency methods for quantitative imaging of developing xylem in eucalypts, and an investigation of the photosynthetic and hydraulic trade-off during drought recovery in eucalypts.

Dr Kim Martin, a Postdoctoral Fellow, kicked the research presentations off with a fascinating talk on a proposed framework for integrating data flows and concepts in eco-physiological and xylogenesis models.

Students giving their research presentations on their respective topics.

During the question-and-answer session at the end of each presentation, live and online discussions were held where presenters were given the opportunity to answer questions from the audience. Being a hybrid event, the energy and buzz of the face-to-face interaction was still present, while the virtual format allowed online attendees to interact with the presenters. The discussion boards were alive with questions and deep exchanges on the research topics. The bustling of multidisciplinary scientific exchanges emphasized how integral postgraduate students are to the scientific community and highlighted again the value of EucXylo’s multi-scale approach.

The question-and-answer sessions made for fruitful discussions.

The Research Day was attended in-person by the vice-president of the Hans Merensky Foundation, Mr. Chris Pienaar, industry partners from Sappi, Mondi Group and York Timbers, student supervisors from various institutions, staff from the Department of Forestry and Wood Science, and prospective students. The president of the Hans Merensky Foundation, Dr Khotso Mokhele, and other Trustees of the Board and staff were present as online attendees.

Dr Khotso Mokhele, president of the Hans Merensky Foundation, and Mr. Chris Pienaar, vice-president of the Hans Merensky Foundation, both attended the Research Day online and in-person, respectively. Industry partners from Sappi, Mondi Group and York Timbers were also among the attendees.

Mr. Chris Pienaar concluded the presentations with a word about Dr Hans Merensky and the Hans Merensky Foundation. Dr Hans Merensky was a very generous man who donated money to universities, schools, libraries, hospitals, charities, cultural organisations, and people in need. He was a pioneer in establishing agricultural schools in southern Africa and made it possible for the University of Stellenbosch to create a Forestry Faculty, which greatly boosted the large-scale forestry industry in the country. He gave much of his wealth to South Africa in the form of generous donations to universities and the establishment of bursaries for students. Today it is obvious that Dr Merensky was not only a scientist of note, but also an extremely farsighted and thoughtful strategist, agricultural trendsetter, humanitarian, and philanthropist.

After the presentations, a tour of the laboratory and experimental facilities at the Paul Sauer building followed, led by Dr Leandra Moller (EucXylo’s talented Technical Officer). Laboratory 1040 has been transformed to become a microscopy, microtomy and tree-ring laboratory to provide students with a facility specially geared for sectioning and preparing samples of developing xylem. Laboratory 1042, also known as the wet-lab, houses the controlled growth chamber and the equipment needed to perform chemical analyses and sample preparations for microscopy.

The tour of the laboratories showcased some of the equipment and facilities used at EucXylo such as the controlled growth chamber, the Leica ultra-microtome and the high-quality Wild stereo microscope.

The Research Day was concluded with an informal evening function, called “Canapes under the Canopy”, where students could interact with industry partners and Trustees. This delightful event took place in the nursery at the Department of Forest and Wood Science, among the young trees that are the subject of one of EucXylo’s longest-running experiments.

The “Canapes under the Canopy” function was an enjoyable event in the nursery area where students could interact and network with industry partners and Trustees.

The event was a resounding success as the EucXylo team pulled off a spectacular 1st Research Day: it was an opportunity to come together, identify common ideas and explore research collaborations. The high level of creativity, professionalism, and engagement that the participants displayed during this event was very pleasing! Sincere gratitude to everyone who contributed to making this event a huge success. It is anticipated that the year 2022 will provide the next opportunity to host the 2nd Hans Merensky Foundation Research Day, which is expected to be held in Tzaneen.

The Research Day provided an enjoyable platform where participants could meet (either in-person or online), network, collaborate and be inspired by the outstanding research done at EucXylo.

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