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.

Principal Investigator – Prof. Dave Drew

The Research Leader and holder of the Hans Merensky Chair in Advanced Modelling of Eucalyptus Wood Formation (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 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. 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 well over 30 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 stem size variation and diameter growth, particularly using electronic dendrometers. 
  • 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

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 Letitia Schoeman

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.

 


Dr Vitalis Lagat

Vitalis joined the team as a Research Software Engineer in April 2022. He has a background in mathematical and statistical modelling including scientific computing, and a passion for unlocking insights hidden in vast amounts of data. His work entails the development of a simulation framework incorporating several existing or published models of wood formation in concert with various tree and forest process-based models. Vitalis holds a First-Class Honours degree in Mathematical Statistics from the University of Nairobi (Kenya), and two master’s degrees (with distinction) in Mathematical Sciences and Ecological Statistics from the Universities of Cape Town, and Stellenbosch, respectively. He is also a Doctor of Philosophy in Ecological Statistics (awarded by the University of Stellenbosch).


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 Jurie Visagie (Technical Officer)

Jurie is trained as an structural engineer, and is a valuable member of the team – capable of handling many diverse challenges that may arrive in the course of our research. He is responsible for maintaining and developing our Nursery Facilities as well as one of the research laboratories in the Department of Forestry and Wood Science, and is also well-positioned to aid in additional technical matters.

 


Mr Anton Kunneke (Senior Technical Officer)

Anton 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.

 

 


Ph.D. Students


Ms Gugu Gama (Ph.D. candidate)

Learn more about Gugu’s work here.

Gugu Gama was born in Newcastle which is a city located in the province 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 (Ph.D. candidate)

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 (Ph.D. candidate)

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 (Ph.D. candidate)

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.

 


M.Sc. 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)

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 (M.Sc. candidate)

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 Chris Tonkin (M.Sc. candidate)

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.

 


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.

 


Honours Students


Ms Jenna Richards (Honours student)

Jenna Richards has a passion for the environment and sustainability and obtained an undergraduate BSc degree from UCT majoring  in Genetics and Applied Statistics. She discovered early on that lab work wasn’t for her as she found herself to be very clumsy. Jenna is now doing her Honours in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at Stellenbosch University. She thinks Bioinformatics is the perfect balance as it brings together her love for biology and numbers. Jenna is excited to join the EucXylo team where she will work to simulate vessel development in Eucalyptus trees using a cell based modelling framework. She believes that biology holds a key that can open the gate to a more sustainable world.

 


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.


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.

 


Alumni (EucXylo & Affiliated Students)


Mr Oluwaseun Gakenou (M.Sc.)

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). His project was aimed at using a simple process-based, stand level model called 3-PG (Physiological Principles Predicting Growth) and satellite driven data to calculate biomass production, and also provide information on the growth dynamics of Eucalyptus grandis x urophylla hybrids under varying climate conditions in South Africa. Due to the limitations of the conventional empirical growth models and complexity of process-based models, the 3-PG model was developed to bridge the gap between conventional empirical growth and yield models and process-based carbon-balance models, coupled with the objective of providing a forest management tool with practical value to Forest managers. This model has been adopted in several countries due to its simplicity, availability (free access to the code and software) and practicality. Although, it had been tested for Eucalyptus grandis in South Africa, it had not been tested for Eucalyptus clones, such as Eucalyptus grandis x urophylla. The objectives of this project were to adapt the model (i.e. developing a parameter set) for EGU species under South African conditions, as well as to test the model and to compare the predictions with an empirical model.


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.

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.