NRF Women's Month 2022: Prof Francesca Porri

NRF Women’s Month 2022: Prof Francesca Porri

Women’s Month 2022 is celebrated under the theme of “Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights for an equal future” and links to the achievement of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5) of Gender Equality by 2030. The NRF is committed to supporting women researchers as well as research aimed at uplifting women.

Prof Francesca Porri is a Senior Scientist and NRF-rated researcher at the South African Institute for South African Biodiversity (NRF-SAIAB) in Makhanda/Grahamstown where she conducts research on coastal ecology while supervising postgraduate students. She’s also part of the NRF-SAIAB Leadership Team that helps to improve and coordinate some of the research activities and duties behind the scenes.

What has been your study/career journey: how did you end up where you are today?

While my dream job as a child was to sell fruit and veg at the market, my love for the outdoors and nature quickly turned into a passion for the sea, especially for the environments between the sea and the land (known as intertidal environments).

So, my Honours and MSc studies in Biological Sciences at the University of Florence, Italy, saw me spend some time (through ERASMUS, a student exchange programme) at Bangor University, North Wales, UK. Here I really had the opportunity to attend courses in marine biology (something not available at my university at the time). From there, where my passion for travelling and discovering was enhanced, I grabbed an incredible opportunity to come to Africa to work on an EU project on mangrove ecology and I spent two and half years at UNITRA (University of Transkei, currently Walter Sisulu University), where I made some lifetime friendships such as the one with Sekiwe Mbande, currently at DFFE, and Vincent Motebang Nakin, currently at WSU.

Since life and work go hand-in-hand and since I had met the love of my life in Mthatha (previously Umtata), this country nourished a desire for me to stay and my longing for the coast was (and still is) burning. I hence embarked on a PhD in Larval Ecology at Rhodes University where I worked with one outstanding scientist, Christopher McQuaid and where the “love for the larvae” started and never left.

The rest is history as, this year, I celebrate a decade at NRF-SAIAB where I have been afforded a safe and stimulating space and incredible facilities and support to develop my passion on processes that drive the ecology of natural and urban coastal ecosystems, and inspire and help train a (hopefully a few more to come!) generation of passionate future marine activists and experts.

What does being an NRF-rated researcher mean to you?

I currently hold an NRF C1-rating as an “established researcher” in my field.

Being an NRF-rated scholar is an important milestone for South African academics as one’s work and portfolio are weighed, measured and put into a context of national and international recognition. To have an NRF-rating helps me understand where my work stands and how I can help improve my scholarly status by making the research I do more relevant to the local and international communities. In my personal experience, the comments I have received when I obtained my first rating were concise yet useful and I hope this five-year cycle system stimulates me and helps my professional growth and the broad significance of the work I do.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

I am a marine biologist interested in the ecology of coastal organisms. This means that, through the research I do together with members of the Coastal and Ocean Sciences Team (COST), I naturally link and try to understand how coastal organisms relate to one another and to the environment they live in. The intertidal environment (the space between the sea and the land) is an exciting living laboratory because organisms living there often have to deal and strive in a “home” that gets flooded and dried out twice a day (here in South Africa high and low tides alternate twice over a 24-hour cycle). This natural challenge is exponentially raised by increasing challenges due to human action, either in the form of climate change or the drastic transformation of the coastline through construction, e.g. roads, defence seawalls structures, harbours, jetties.

Since most coastal species reproduce by releasing gametes in the sea, if you are a larva (baby stage of many marine species) that needs to find its way home to the shore, there are additional challenges due the large number of predators in the water; the powerful currents and swashing waves; and the extreme conditions often imposed by the changing environments. “Finding home” when available homes are in short supply (due to coastal urbanisation) is also an added challenge as a larva has a limited time to return to the place on the coast (habitats) where they will grow into adults.

Through recent research, our team is trying to understand the mechanisms that help larvae find their way home; how larvae function (or not) under altered conditions; and how we can find solutions to enhance the arrival of larvae (processes called settlement and recruitment) to the adult sites in urban coastal settings. This research is very important as larvae are the foundation of all populations and largely regulate the success of adults – simply put in my evergreen motto #NoLarvae-NoParty!

Please tell us more about the NRF-funded Indigenous Marine Innovations for Sustainable Environments and Economies (IMIsEE) programme. What is your role, and what is the aim of the programme?

The main aim of the IMIsEE project is to merge innovative nature-based approaches and indigenous cultural expressions to counteract the adverse impacts of coastal urbanisation by improving the values of coastal biodiversity. Ultimately, this project aims to transform urban coastlines through the use of green engineering innovations in order to benefit both the people and biological communities.

As a principal investigator in this project, I am excited that we will officially launch this new NRF-funded study later this month in Hamburg, Eastern Cape, which is basically the cradle of this research. Unfortunately, the daily news about gender-based violence sober the celebrations for this month and constantly remind us about the long walk to respect and equality for women, but we hope that the IMIsEE project will help in different ways to inspire, give hope, and empower women and humans in general. The IMIsee project is a trans-disciplinary partnership that integrates indigenous knowledge (Keiskamma Trust), music, education (Rhodes University), and cutting-edge scientific techniques (SAIAB and additional collaborators) to ultimately co-create innovative nature-based solutions for urban coastlines.

This innovation will also provide some economic upliftment to the poorest rural sectors of the South African society, placing traditional knowledge bearers (mostly women within the rural community) at the epicentre of this innovation. Given that the artisanal practice of weaving is a dying practice, this project will also boost the heritage value of local traditional cultural expression.

What advice do you have for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers?

Humans, if afforded the opportunity, space and freedom are naturally curious, but often listen too much to the background noise of society and imposed stereotypes. I think that the main advice for girls (and everyone) is to follow the passion and curiosity, be it in numbers, mechanisms, observations, or nature. These key fields can be nurtured from any age and with determination can lead to following the dreams even if often the road is bumpy, unjust, unfair and full of hurdles. Those stop signs are often temporary and the pauses should help add clarity to the real goals.

When I was a kid, I was lucky to be afforded the freedom to be out, get dirty, be late for dinners and not the first in the grade. It was in grandpa and grandma’s veggie garden where I started the first observations of nature and its processes…you don’t need to have a grand start to feed your curiosity, most of the time the best inspirations are simple and right in front of you!

This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Please view the terms for republishing here.                                      

Related Posts