College of Agriculture & Environmental Sciences

Research is a lifelong journey

Prof Leslie Robert Brown, Head of the Applied Behavioural Ecology and Ecosystem Research Unit (ABEERU) at Unisa

"I do not think one can ever be a top researcher," says Prof Leslie Robert Brown, the Head of the Applied Behavioural Ecology and Ecosystem Research Unit (ABEERU) at Unisa. He believes that in academia, being a researcher is much like being a sports team member. "You are only as good as your last match and, in a researcher’s case, your latest research project and publication."

Presently, Brown is involved in different research projects. "I can provide long discussions on these projects, but in essence they mostly focus on determining the effects of different drivers on ecosystems and what that means for the management of these systems," he says. "I am a plant ecologist who focuses on vegetation as the basis for management of natural areas to detect problems in the environment."

Brown says: "Nature is the basis on which all life depends therefore we need to manage it in a responsible and sustainable way."

"These projects are multi- and transdisciplinary involving collaboration with various researchers on a national and international level. The more we know about how nature functions, the better we can make predictions on envisaged future changes that will affect the survival of not only wildlife, but, most importantly, humans."


Academic qualifications and accomplishments

Between 1982 and 1986, Brown received his BSc (Ed), BSc Hons and MSc in Botany at the Rand Afrikaans University (RAU). He then completed his PhD (Plant Ecology) at the University of Pretoria (UP). Brown’s PhD thesis is entitled "A plant ecological study and wildlife management plan of the Borakalalo Nature Reserve, North-West Province".

In 2003, Brown established ABEERU, the unit that functions as a research group within the Department of Environmental Sciences. He says it’s an accomplishment he is particularly proud of. "It has grown from only three researchers to more than 20 researchers (Unisa and international collaborators) and three permanent research sites in South Africa where various research projects are undertaken. It has produced numerous postgraduate students as well as publications over the years," says Brown.

"Nature is the basis on which all life depends therefore we need to manage it in a responsible and sustainable way." 

Through ABEERU, Brown received funding from various external organisations, such as the National Research Foundation (NRF), Oppenheimer & Son, Rand Water, and the Water Research Commission of more than R4 million over the years whereby various research projects and postgraduate students were funded.

In addition to his career achievements, the modest professor says: "I am also fortunate to be a co-author of the only ecology book in the world that focuses on African ecosystems: Life and the environment: an African perspective."

The book was written owing to the lack of textbooks on ecology using African examples. "My co-authors and I received the Golden Merit Award from the South African Academy of Science and Art for our contribution to science with this book," Brown says.

Moreover, his involvement with the international Herbaceous Diversity Network, which has more than 60 vegetation scientists throughout the world, has led to the development of innovative research projects and the publishing of manuscripts in highly rated journals, which has contributed towards worldwide knowledge on vegetation ecosystems.

Brown, an awardee of the Unisa Chancellor’s Award for the best researcher on three occasions, is this year a nominee for the NSTF Lewis Foundation Green Economy Award of the 2019-2020 NSTF-South32 Awards.

He has also been the vice-president and president of the Grassland Society of Southern Africa, the vice-chair for the South African Academy for Science & Art, and serves on various boards of journals and committees.


Ongoing relationship with Unisa

"My research has taught me to be humble and respect everything and everyone around me. I have met the most wonderful people inside and outside the university and have learned so much from them," says Brown.

"Unisa has provided me with the vehicle to conduct research. It was up to me to get into the vehicle and drive it and get research going."

"The university provides so much opportunity and support for research. You just have to go out and grab it."

"That has led me to be able to become involved with some of the most wonderful projects and experience so many things in life," he says.

"Research is difficult, competitive and unforgiving, but one needs to stand one's ground to get ahead."


To young academics

Advising young academics, Brown says: "Once you have achieved your PhD do not think you possess all the knowledge in the world. A PhD is merely a step in getting your research career started and should make you realise how much you still have to learn. Research is difficult, competitive and unforgiving, but one needs to stand one’s ground to get ahead."

Teaching inspired Brown to choose the academic route. He says: "I love teaching and training students, but even more so to conduct research. Life is about questioning everything around us and trying to make sense of it. Academia gives me the freedom to develop research projects and collect baseline data to find answers to complex problems."

"This enables me to share with the new generation - to ensure that there will always be someone questioning what happens in nature on how to protect and manage ecosystems."

Regardless of being at the pinnacle of his career, Brown thinks winning in academia is not final. "I work in an ever-changing field - nature - and there will always be challenges and interesting projects influencing my success and progress. I do not think one ever reaches that 'pinnacle', but what is important is to always aim for that. I still have many ideas and objectives that I want to accomplish."

* By Lesego Ravhudzulo, Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2020/05/14