Evolutionary geneticist recognised as world leader

Prof Terry Robinson, a zoologist from Stellenbosch University searching for genetic clues about the most primitive of African mammals, the Afrotheria, has been awarded an A2 rating from the National Research Foundation (NRF) which recognises him as a world class scientist in his field.

A-rated scientists are unequivocally accepted by their peers as world leaders in their fields of interest. Individuals are primarily evaluated on the high quality of their research outputs of the past eight years. The evaluation is done by national and international peers, and reviewers who are requested to critically scrutinise the completed research.

Prof Robinson is the fourteenth SU researcher to receive this honour from his peers in recent years.

Prof Robinson works in the fields of evolutionary genetics and aspects of chromosome biology such as molecular cytogenetics, systematics and phylogenomics. He uses technical advances in contemporary flow cytometry and data from the human and other sequenced genomes in his work.

His research group in the SU Department of Botany and Zoology explores question about the early evolution and relationship of Afrotheria, ancestral features of their genomic architecture, and the phylogenetic interpretation of chromosomal characters. Afrotheria contains six orders of mammals of probable African origin that lie at the root of the eutherian or placental mammal evolutionary tree.

“We are searching for clues about the common ancestor of mammals such the aardvark, elephant, golden mole and elephant shrew,” Prof Robinson said in explaining his work on the genome structure of mammals originating from Africa. “I want to find out just how the genetic material contained within these animals has been reshuffled in the evolutionary past, how species evolved, and how these animals are related to one another.”

Aspects of this research, which was initially funded by the Wellcome Trust, is done in collaboration with scientists at Cambridge University, the University of California, the University of Barcelona, the Australian National University, Canberra, and the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Prof Robinson received his doctorate in 1981 from the University of Pretoria, after which he did postdoctoral work at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer and Tumor Research Institute and the Institute for Molecular Genetics, Baylor College of Medicine, both in Houston. He returned to South Africa to work as professor at the University of Pretoria (UP) and to establish a comprehensive molecular programme in its Department of Zoology.

Since moving to Stellenbosch University in late 1999 he has concentrated almost exclusively on evolutionary genetics, and in particular on developments in comparative genomics.

He has twice received the Rectors Award for Research Excellence from Stellenbosch University, and was last year a recipient of the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Centenary Research Medal awarded to the top researchers produced by UP over the past 100 years. In 2003 Prof Robinson was also honoured with the Zoological Society of Southern Africa’s Gold Medal for his contributions to zoology in South Africa. 

He is a regular guest speaker at international conferences, has published over 140 scientific papers and book chapters, and is on the editorial boards of several major international journals. His research attracts high calibre postdoctoral fellows and students.

Prof Robinson serves on the Afrotherian IUCN Specialist Group, is a founder member of the Executive Committee of the World Lagomorph Society, and has functioned in different capacities on NRF review committees. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, a Visiting Fellow at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, and a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa.