AgriSETA Learner Connect: Meet a mycologist

Published: Thursday, September 10, 2020

Education TrainingCommunity AffairsAgriculture Community Development

Dr Riana Jacobs-Venter is one of Mzansi`s foremost experts in fungi. Her knowledge helps protect the food that our farmers produce

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By Staff Reporter

9th Sep 2020

Dr Riana Jacobs-Venter received her first microscope from her grandfather when she was twelve. She fondly remembers all the hours she spent examining soil, fruit and even the fungi on mouldy bread. Now she is a proud mycologist and senior researcher at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC).

Mycologists identify, describe and catalog fungal species. Many of these fungi can cause diseases in agricultural crops, Jacobs-Venter explains. The research helps farmers to protect their crops. Accurately identifying these fungi and treating the crops prevents their spread. It’s a pretty important job!

If mathematics and science makes you curious then this is one career path you should consider. Good time management and organisational skills will set you on the right path. She encourages those interested to love reading and keep up with the new developments in your field. Those interested in becoming a mycologist should also have a keen eye for detail.

Her proudest career moments include becoming the curator of the National Collection of Fungi (NCF). Jacobs-Venter had to oversee the successful relocation of 10 000 cultures and 60 000 specimens from the NCF to the ARC’s Roodeplaat research facility.

Contributing to a sector that impacts all people’s lives directly or indirectly is why Jacobs-Venter loves working in the agri sector. If you’re brave, then take up space in Mzansi’s agri industry, follow the advice below to learn more and get involved.

Over the next few weeks we will feature many more careersin the agri sector to choose from on Food for Mzansi and 19 radio stations all over the country. 

Ok, now it’s over to Dr Riana Jacobs-Venter, mycologist and senior researcher at the Agricultural Research Council.

1.    Could you sum up your job for us? I am responsible for identifying, describing and cataloguing fungal species. This includes keeping track of South Africa’s fungal diversity as the curator of the National Collection of Fungi (NCF). Many of these fungi cause disease in agricultural crops.

It is our responsibility to accurately identify it and to help farmers and quarantine officers make informed decisions. My taxonomic work also includes non-agricultural studies to determine what the possible impact of climate change can be on fungal diversity. In biology, taxonomy is the science of naming, defining and classifying groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics.

2.    So, what does the day-to-day of your job entail? I work on a variety of activities. Sometimes I isolate fungal strains from various substrates such as diseased plants or soil. I study them under the microscope and determine their identity based on comparisons with known species. I also do analyses of DNA (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) sequence data for identifications.

I have meetings with staff and with students to discuss their research findings. I ensure that the NCF complies with all national legislation and international guidelines. I attending meetings with clients that use our diagnostics services and complete contract work for companies.

3.    What qualification do you need for this career? You will need a Masters of Science (MSc.) or Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in microbiology or plant pathology. I have a Bachelor of Science (BSc.) in microbiology and genetics and all three my other degrees are in microbiology.

4.    What are the character traits you need to be great at your job? Good time management and organisational skills, you must love reading so that you stay abreast with new developments in your field. You need an eye for detail and must be dedicated to your tasks.

5.    What subjects do I need to become a mycologistMathematics, science, biology, microbiology, plant pathology and botany.

6.    What do you love about agriculture as a space to work in? Contributing to a sector that impacts all people’s lives directly or indirectly.

7.    Don’t be modest, tell us about your proudest career moments? I am the curator for the National Collection of Fungi (NCF) and was responsible for the successful relocation of the 10 000 cultures and 60 000 specimens from the NCF to Roodeplaat and negotiated the incorporation and relocation of the PROMEC collection containing 9000 cultures from Tygerberg in Cape Town to the NCF at Roodeplaat. The NCF has attained global exposure through fully funded formal collaborations with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Australia and with Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) under the Darwin initiative.

I have been successful in obtaining research funds to study the biodiversity and possible impact of phytopathogenic fungi in South Africa as well as value addition through mobilisation of collection data and barcoding of the NCF. My research contributions have also been awarded the Douw Greef-prize by the South African Academy for Literature and Science and the Afrikaanse Taal en Kunsvereniging-SA Academy prize twice for the best research article in Afrikaans.

8.    What do you do when you’re not at work? Raising awesome kids, reading and spending as much time as possible with the people I care for.

9.    Any advice for young people who are inspired by your career story here on AgriSETA Learner Connect? Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t. Make a difference in the world every day, no matter how small.

10.  Where can I study to become a mycologistMost South African universities offer post graduate programmes that include mycology or plant pathology.

How to listen to AgriSETA Learner Connect:

Option 1: Click here to listen on Spotify (all mobile and other devices).

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Option 3: Click here to listen on Google Podcasts.



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