The Team

Students in front of the Paul Sauer (Forestry) building at Stellenbosch University

The EucXylo team is based at the Department of Forest and Wood Science at Stellenbosch University (SU), which celebrated its centenary in 2018, and is widely acknowledged as one of Africa’s premier tertiary education and research institutions.  Located in the historic tourist town of Stellenbosch, staff and students at the University enjoy a relaxed and pleasant lifestyle, close to mountains and sea.  The Department of Forest & Wood Science (DFWS) in the Faculty of AgriSciences at SU, the only one of its kind in South Africa, has had a long history with the University.  Attracting students from around the world, and with strong international linkages and collaborations, the DFWS prides itself on research excellence with a diverse, friendly culture.

If you think you might like to join us, as a student or post-doctoral fellow, visit our Research Opportunities page, and scroll down to see current vacancies and application procedures.

Principal Investigator – Prof. Dave Drew

The Research Leader and holder of the Hans Merensky Chair (EucXylo) is Prof. Dave Drew.

Dave originally obtained his B.Sc. Forestry degree from the University of Stellenbosch, followed by an M.Sc. degree from the University of Natal, working with Prof. Norman Pammenter.  It was during his M.Sc. studies that he developed his interest and passion in understanding tree ecophysiology and how this underpins xylogenesis (wood formation).  From this beginning, he then moved to Australia to pursue this line of research further with scientists such as Dr. Michael Battaglia, Dr Tony O’Grady, Dr. Geoff Downes and Dr. Robert Evans, the creator of SilviScan.

Dave obtained his Ph.D. from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.  After that, he worked for several years as a Research Scientist at CSIRO Australia, based in the beautiful city of Hobart, Tasmania.  In mid-2015, Dave returned to South Africa with his family to take up his current academic position at Stellenbosch University.  He has written or contributed to over 45 papers published in the peer-reviewed literature (see Dave’s Google Scholar profile).  Dave keeps in contact and works with a large network of scientists around the world.

Currently, Dave has three main research foci, built on his passionate interest in wood formation and understand fine-scale responses in trees:

  • Applying hybrid and process-based approaches to modelling tree growth and wood formation. 
  • Precision approaches to measuring tree physiological processes and growth. 
  • Approaches to visualising and characterising properties of and processes in developing xylem.

Dave is particularly interested in understanding these phenomena in and applying these techniques in eucalypts.  Many species in this large and important group of trees exhibit extraordinary flexibility in their responses to environmental conditions, reflected in complex variability in their wood properties.  Dave has a passion for better understanding of what lies behind this complexity.

He is main or co-supervisor to several students undertaking research in all of these areas, as well as other fields of study.  He is also responsible for the continual development and teaching of two under-graduate modules within the four-year B.Sc. (Forestry) program offered by the Department of Forest and Wood Science.  Prof. Drew is a past subject editor for the European Journal of Forest Research, and previous guest editor for Annals of Forest Science.  He is a member of the South African Association of Botanists, South African Institute of Forestry and the International Association of Wood Anatomists (IAWA).


Postdoctoral Research Fellows


Dr Kim Martin

Learn more about Kim’s work here.

Kim joined the team as a Postdoc in March 2020. She has a background in mammalian tissue morphogenesis and a passion for computational modelling of living systems and structures, and is excited to delve into the world of tissue morphogenesis in trees. She will focus on approaches to managing data and setting up modelling frameworks for xylogenesis in eucalypts. Kim did her B.Sc. (Biochemistry; Genetics & Development) and B.Sc.(Med)Hons (Cell Biology) at UCT, Cape Town, and (following a number of years working in research labs) her Ph.D. in Biomedical Science at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.


Dr Michelle Eckert

Michelle originally obtained her BSc, MSc and PhD in Conservation Ecology at Stellenbosch University. During her research, she focused on the importance of soil arthropod biodiversity conservation within a timber production landscape mosaic. Through her research, she developed an interest in sustainable management practices within timber plantation landscapes. She recently joined the EucXylo team as a postdoctoral researcher in September 2022, where she will be leading the design, planning and implementation of the Open-Air Laboratory Program.

 


EucXylo Support Staff


Dr Leandra Moller (Technical Officer)

Leandra is responsible for managing the two laboratories (the “wet” lab and the microscopy/microtomy centre) at the Paul Sauer building used by students/researchers working as part of EucXylo.  She has over nine years of laboratory-based research experience.  She has worked with a variety of techniques and technologies, including a variety of microscopes and gas/liquid chromatography.  She will also work closely with students doing experimental work in the nursery complex, and at the experimental farm/other glasshouse facilities.


Mr Anton Kunneke (Senior Technical Officer)

Anton, who works with several staff throughout the Department, provides strong technical support in all areas of “forest informatics”.  He is also experienced in the setting up, use and maintenance of a wide variety of equipment and technologies.  He is in the process of developing a new, low-cost and easy to use dendrometer and sap flow system.  He has a particular interest in remote sensing technologies, including drone-based sensing and terrestrial LiDAR.


Mrs Liesel Strauss (Project Administrator)

Liesel joined the team in May 2021 as a Project Administrator. She obtained a B.Com(Acc) degree at the University of the Western Cape, and has worked in the Higher Education environment for 15 years at all the universities in the Western Cape. Liesel provides essential support in all matters, including tasks like bursary payments, filing of documents and doing orders for students and staff.

 


Ph.D. Students


Ms Gugu Gama

Learn more about Gugu’s work here.

Gugu Gama was born in Newcastle, a town located in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. She later moved to Johannesburg and received her bachelor’s degree in Botany and Biochemistry from the University of Johannesburg. With great interest in wood and bark anatomy, she furthered her studies and obtained her M.Sc. degree from the University of Johannesburg majoring in Plant Anatomy and Molecular Systematics and Plant Evolution. She has a background in lianescent species portraying an uncommon formation of cambial variant in the genus Grewia. Gugu is therefore excited to join the EucXylo team and expand her knowledge on wood formation in Eucalyptus species. The first aspect of her Ph.D. research will investigate the dynamics of xylem growth in Eucalyptus cladocalyx focusing on the relationship among growth and climate under varying climate conditions in South Africa.


Mr Rafael Keret

Learn more about Raf’s work here.

Rafael was brought up and currently resides in Cape Town, South Africa. Throughout school he has always had a passion for the sciences and showed a great deal of interest for how the biological world functions. To further fuel his thirst for knowledge he obtained his B.Sc. in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at Stellenbosch University. During varsity Rafael found the field of Plant Biotechnology to be quite fascinating and therefore he pursued his B.Sc. (Hons) and M.Sc. at the Institute for Plant Biotechnology (IPB). Currently, he has joined the EucXylo team, at the Department of Forest and Wood Science, as a Ph.D. candidate, with experience in molecular work, tissue culture and hormonal regulation in plant tissues. His research at the DFWS, is in collaboration with the IPB, under guidance from Dr D. Drew and Dr PN. Hills. Outside of the academic world, Rafael enjoys playing sport, being active, the great outdoors and working on mechanical items.


Mr Mpilo Khumalo

Learn more about Mpilo’s work here.

Mpilo Khumalo grew up in Bergville, a small town in the beautiful valleys of the Drakensberg mountains in KwaZulu Natal. He obtained his B.Sc. in Biological Sciences, B.Sc. (Hons) in Ecology and Environmental Sciences, and M.Sc. in Ecosystems Ecology from the University of the Witwatersrand. His M.Sc. research focused on Wood respiration in southern African savanna ecosystems supervised by the distinguished Professor Bob Scholes and under the mentorship of Professor Sally Archibald. His research expertise ranges from plant physiology to modelling various ecophysiological processes from tissues to ecosystem level. He has joined Stellenbosch University as a Ph.D. candidate under the EucXylo research group at the Department of Forest and Wood Science. His Ph.D. research will relate xylogenesis (wood formation) in several Eucalyptus varieties to various ecophysiological and biogeochemical processes, for example, evapotranspiration, sap flow, carbon fluxes (namely photosynthesis, sequestration and respiration), and plant resource allocation, all which are mainly driven by changes in climate and environmental conditions.


Mr Brian Mandigora

Learn more about Brian’s work here.

Empirical growth models are important forest management and planning tools. However, in light of the more frequent extreme climate events like floods and droughts experienced over the past few decades, it has become more difficult to accurately forecast forest growth and yield. Past rotations no longer accurately explain future rotations in commercial plantations. Furthermore, current models do not explain how wood properties; which are highly commercially significant; respond to daily climatic events like rainfall. Brian, who is co-supervised by Prof Ben Du Toit, is seeking in his Ph.D. to develop cutting-edge models for growth, yield and wood properties at appropriate spatial and temporal scales in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa. He will make use of data from two collaborating forest companies, Mondi and SAPPI from research plots to build and validate the models. Brian is originally from Zimbabwe, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree. He subsequently undertook an M.Sc. degree from Stellenbosch, before beginning his Ph.D. in 2018. His interests lie in the development and application of models to manage challenges, as well as to exploit opportunities, that climate change and climate variation present in agriculture, particularly forestry.


Mr Oluwaseun Gakenou

Learn more about Oluwaseun’s work here, and see his LinkedIn profile here.

Oluwaseun was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. He received his bachelor’s degree in Forestry and Wildlife Management from the Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta (FUNAAB). He completed his M.Sc. project with EucXylo (see here) in 2021, using the stand level hybrid model 3-PG (Physiological Principles Predicting Growth) to predict growth in South African E. grandis X urophylla clones. In 2022, he took on a role as EucXylo’s data steward during which time he migrated much essential data into the GEMS platform. Fueled by his interest in data science and a relentless drive for skill enhancement, he embarked on a journey as a Ph.D. candidate with the EucXylo team in 2023. His project is centered around leveraging LiDAR technology to monitor and characterize crown architecture in young eucalypts. The scope of his work entails acquiring TLS scans at an exceptionally fine temporal scale and developing robust pipelines for the efficient management and analysis of the extensive dataset. 


Masters Students


Ms Yenziwe Mbuyisa (M.Sc. candidate)

Learn more about Yenziwe’s work here.

Yenziwe N Mbuyisa grew up in the small town of Ladysmith KZN. She has a Rhodes University undergraduate degree in environmental science and geology, and an Honours degree in environmental science from the same university. Her interest in trees and climate change was stimulated during an internship program with the Rhodes Restoration Research Group (RRRG) in 2019, where she worked under the guidance of Dr Kathleen Smart and Mr Mike Powell. During this time Yenziwe refined her knowledge on basic plant physiology and picked up skills at the Waainek experimental green house facility, where she ran germination trials on seventeen thicket species and also worked with different electron microscopes to assess the anatomy of these species. Yenziwe’s M.Sc. will be looking at the water use efficiency of different Eucalyptus clones using stable isotopes. This project will be a collaborative effort between EucXylo and the Global Change Biology Group (GCBG) under the supervision of Prof Guy Midgley and Dr David Drew.


Ms Lucy Nevhungwili (M.Sc. candidate)

Learn more about Lucy’s work here.

Lucy was born and raised in Lwamondo Village outside of Thohoyandou in the Limpopo province. She obtained her undergraduate degree in B.Sc. Agriculture (Forestry specialization) from University of Venda and a Postgraduate diploma in Forestry and Wood Science from the University of Stellenbosch. She has always been interested in the processes behind plant development and improving plant species. Lucy is excited to join the EucXylo team because it is a diverse group with different interests and she believes there is a lot to learn.


Ms Jenna Roseveare

Jenna Roseveare grew up in a small town in the Western Cape, called Bonnievale. She has recently moved to Hermanus. She studied B.Sc. Forestry and Wood Science at Stellenbosch University and obtained her degree in 2021. She is currently the first student from the Forestry and Wood Science department to enrol in the Sustainable Agriculture Master’s Program at Stellenbosch University. Her passion for agroforestry has grown tremendously over the years, which led her to her current research project. She is studying the effect of growing lucerne (Medicago sativa) in Eucalypt plantations in order to improve soil conditions. Prof. Dave Drew will be her supervisor, together with Dr. Ethel Phiri from the Agronomy department. She is very excited to join the EucXylo team and to be collaborating with the Forestry and Wood science department while completing her master’s degree in Sustainable Agriculture.


Mr Matthew van Eyssen (M.Sc. candidate)

Learn more about Matthew’s work here.

Matthew van Eyssen was born in Cape Town and moved to Paarl when he was 6. He obtained his B.Sc. in Forest and Wood Science at Stellenbosch University, where his focus was on Wood Product Science. Matthew is excited to join the EucXylo team to expand his knowledge in Forestry, specifically focussing on Eucalyptus. Prof. Dave Drew will act as his main supervisor, but the project will also involve a collaboration with Wood Product Science and there Prof. Brand Wessels will be his co-supervisor. The project will involve an in-depth analysis on wood structure, as well as silvicultural regimes to see if there are any strong indictors that could assist with cell wall collapse. In his free time, Matthew enjoys fixing things or inventing objects to ease or improve life. Wood has always fascinated him and throughout his study, his love for it has grown. For Matthew it is a great honour to be able to do his M.Sc. in Forestry and Wood Sciences for the next two years with the Hans Merensky Chair in Advanced Modelling of Eucalypt Wood Formation.


Mr Christopher Erasmus (M.Eng. candidate)

Learn more about Christopher’s work here.

Christopher Erasmus was born in Johannesburg and moved to Cape Town when he was 5 years old. From a young age, he showed interest in fixing all sorts of things and frustrated his parents by taking things apart to look at their internals. With a strong aptitude in mathematics and science, he wanted to become an astronaut, however as he became older, he became more realistic. He will obtain his B.Eng. in Mechatronics in December 2023 and from the start of 2024 he will enroll in a masters program in electronic engineering, focusing on electronic design and IoT (Internet of Things). The topic of his M.Eng. is the research and development of a wireless dendrometer, under supervision of Prof. Thinus Booysen and  Prof. Dave Drew.


Mr Jacques Vermeulen (M.Sc. candidate)

Jacques Vermeulen was brought up in the winelands around Stellenbosch. After finishing at Stellenbosch High school, his academic career started out with Civil Engineering at Stellenbosch University. With Covid-19 acting as a catalyst, Jacques switched his engineering undergraduate degree to a B.Sc. in Forest and Wood Science. Changing his focus from concrete and steel to trees and wood. When Jacques isn’t in the Forestry library, you can find him in nature reserves, arboretums or fighting wildfires on the Western Cape mountains as a volunteer for the Volunteer Wildfire Service. He will obtain his B.Sc. in Forest and Wood Science in December 2024 and from the start of 2025 he will enroll in a master’s program in forestry, focusing on modelling and simulating the effect of stand density on individual Eucalyptus trees.

Ms Erin Ramsay (M.Sc. candidate)

Erin grew up in East London in the Eastern Cape. She has both and undergraduate and honours degree in biodiversity and ecology from Stellenbosch University. She has always been interested in climate and global change, which was fostered through working with the School for Climate Studies here at Stellenbosch University. She has a worked studying Protea physiology through varying climatic conditions and is now broadening her knowledge through her M.Sc., working with various Eucalyptus species. This is a collaborative project between the Global Change Biology Group and EucXylo labs under the supervision of Prof Guy Midgley and Dr David Drew.


Ms Yasmin DeRaay (M.Eng. candidate)

Yasmin was born in Knysna and grew up in the Transkei. In her free time, she enjoys painting, fishing, hiking, and anything related to nature and the outdoors. Her love for nature and appreciation for the outdoors started during family holidays in Nature’s Valley, where her dad would take them on hikes and pause to share insights about every tree they walked past. She recently obtained her degree in Industrial Engineering, where she developed a machine learning model to identify grapevine cultivars based on their leaves. The prospect of her Master’s journey in 2024 excites her as it will allow her to combine her love for nature with the skills and knowledge gained during her degree. In this upcoming endeavor, she will capture images of Eucalyptus roots and apply machine learning to gain deeper insights into their growth dynamics.

 


Honours Students


No honours students are registered with EucXylo at the moment.


Affiliated Students


EucXylo thrives on formal and informal collaborations with our network of local and international Partners, and frequently provide input to students from other groups in an unofficial capacity.

Alumni (Students and PDFs)


Dr Letitia Schoeman

Learn more about Letitia’s work here.

Letitia joined the EucXylo team as a postdoc in February 2021. She originally obtained her B.Sc. Food Science degree from the University of Stellenbosch, followed by an M.Sc. degree, which was upgraded to a Ph.D. in Food Science. It was during her M.Sc. studies that she developed an interest and passion for using non-destructive techniques, such as X-ray micro- and nano-computed tomography (CT), to perform microstructural analyses. After obtaining her Ph.D. she pursued this research field further while being appointed as a postdoc at the Department of Horticultural Sciences, where her research focus was based on using X-ray micro- and nano-CT to characterise mealiness disorder in pears. Currently, Letitia will focus on employing non-destructive approaches to characterise and quantify developmental processes in differentiating xylem in eucalypts. Learn more about Letitia’s work here.


Ms Frances Steyl (B.Eng)

Ms Frances Steyl, from the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering at Stellenbosch University, completed her Mechatronic Project 478 under the supervision of Prof. Petrie Meyer, where she investigated an alternative method of plant vibration measurements. This project investigated the use of a Laser Doppler Vibrometer (LDV) to measure the vibrations of a plant. The objective of this project was to determine if a LDV can be used to measure cavitations in the xylem vessels of a plant. The cavitations must be detectable in the data recorded by the vibrometer in order to be counted and used to determine the water level of the plant. Ultrasonic measurement devices are currently used to measure cavitation in plants. However, these sensing devices are expensive and invasive. Optical and hydraulic measurement methods can also be used to detect cavitations but makes use of expensive laboratory equipment. In contrast, LDV provides a more affordable and non-invasive solution to drought stress monitoring, by measuring the vibrations caused by the audible acoustic emissions of the cavitations. It also does not need a laboratory set-up as required for hydraulic and optical methods, making it more suitable for outdoor use. The results from the study demonstrated the detection of cavitations in the time domain. Distinct peaks could be identified in the measurements taken on Day 2, and when isolating these peaks a decaying response was observed, as expected from the cavitations. Laser Doppler Vibrometry proved to be a viable solution for measuring the vibrations caused by cavitations in young plants with thin bark. The exact effect of the stem and bark thickness on the measurements is still unclear and should be further investigated.


Mr Keegan Hull (M.Eng. candidate)

Keegan was born in Johannesburg before moving to Gqeberha/Port Elizabeth just before his primary schooling began. It was here that he started enjoying deconstructing computers and other electronics to figure out why and how they work. He started programming in high school, and this led to his love of technology; he decided to pursue a degree in Electronic Engineering. At Stellenbosch University, he was given the space to venture into the different realms of electronics before stumbling onto the worlds of IoT (Internet of Things) and automation. From here, he has been deeply interested in how to make devices “speak” to one another and how this can be used to autonomously control electronics with less human intervention. This will be the topic of his M.Eng. research for the next two years, under the supervision of Prof. Thinus Booysen.


Mr Tiza Ignatius Mfuni (M.Sc.)

Learn more about Tiza’s work here.

Tiza Ignatius Mfuni was born and raised in Lusaka, Zambia. He holds a Bachelor of Engineering in Geomatics from the University of Zambia  and is currently a researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research’s (CIFOR) Sustainable Landscapes and Livelihoods portfolio based in Zambia. A lot of Tiza’s undergraduate thesis and early work focused on applying GIS/Remote sensing techniques in estimating and projecting land use land cover changes over time as part of highly interdisciplinary research projects on topics such as forest economics, sustainable governance of forests and the role of forests in human well-being. His exposure at has CIFOR cultivated in him an interest in the effects of climate change on forests and livelihoods. As a result, Tiza’s research interests are in modeling and predicting climate- and livelihood-driven changes in landscape elements and processes in the sub-tropics. This is what motivated him to pursue an M.Sc. in Forestry and Wood Sciences at Stellenbosch and join the EucXylo team.


Ms Fezile Mhlabane (AIMS M.Sc.)

Fezile was supervised by Prof. Nick Hale and Dr Andie de Villiers at Applied Mathematics under the auspices of a structured M.Sc. program done in conjunction with the African Institute of Mathemetical Sciences (AIMS), South African branch.


Mrs Alta Saunders (Ph.D.)

Learn more about Alta’s work here.

Alta grew up Cape Town and obtained a B.Sc. in Conservation Ecology and M.Sc. in Botany from the University of Stellenbosch. During her M.Sc. she was part of the 73rd research team stationed on Marion Island, and focused on using remote sensing techniques to capture plant responses to environmental change. After her studies she worked in the agriculture sector for two years before coming back to university to start her Ph.D studies. Her interest in using models to explain plant response to environmental changes and how these models can be implemented, has led her to the shift her focus to the forestry sector.


Ms Gabi Sibiya (M.Sc.)

Gabi was born and raised in a small town called Amsterdam which is located in the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa. Her M.Sc. project involved using the process based model called CABALA (an acronym for CArbon BAlance), originally developed by Dr. Michael Battaglia (CSIRO, Australia) to provide silvicultural decision support for Eucaluptus globulus plantations. The main objectives for her project were to (1) parameterize CABALA for Eucalyptus grandis x urophylla hybrids in South Africa and (2) test how CABALA performs in the Southern African environment through comparing the results produced by CABALA with empirical field data.


Mr Chris Tonkin

Learn more about Chris’ work here.

Chris grew up in Cape Town and did his undergrad in Conservation Ecology at Stellenbosch University. He developed an interest in Climate Change and did his fourth-year thesis studying the impacts of Climate Change on the productivity and photosynthetic rate of C4 grasses in South Africa. He is currently starting his M.Sc. at Stellenbosch University, focusing on calibrating a sap flow model, first developed by Prof Kathy Steppe et al (2006), for two Eucalyptus spp. and then applying a drought treatment to the trees to simulate how the species may respond to Climate Change. His project is a cross departmental study between the Botany and Forestry departments at Stellenbosch University and he is being co-supervised by Prof Guy Midgley, Dr David Drew and Prof Stephanie Midgley. Eucalyptus trees have been observed to be very effective at sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. This may make them a viable species for combating Climate Change by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It is therefore important to understand how the trees themselves will be affected by Climate Change, and whether they can still effectively sequester carbon under predicted Climate Change conditions.

Please see the Research Opportunities page to learn more about the different areas of research that we are pursuing, and see here for details on how to apply to join us.

Partners and Collaborators

Active and open collaboration is an important part of our strategy in the EucXylo program. We see linkages with the best possible people as the best possible route to success.  EucXylo requires expertise in a broad range of areas, and it is not feasible to have a full range of expertise in one person; or certainly, it’ll be very hard to find such a person!  But it’s very possible to pull together a great team from the huge pool of talent at Stellenbosch University. This is what we’ve done!

The EucXylo research program works with scientists from across Stellenbosch University’s faculties of AgriScience, Engineering and Science:

Such a diversity of skills at the University is extremely valuable for all researchers who are working within the EucXylo Chair. Students who are part of EucXylo will be able to easily access the extremely broad availability of expertise and facilities in the University through these partnerships.

We also work closely with an expanding network of South African and international experts. Some of our collaborators and friends are:

We are also proud members of the new Q-Net network of scholars using Quantitative Wood A