SAASTA getSETgo
SAASTA getSETgo
January 2014
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It's a fact!

Meet Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, palaeo-biologist and award-winning science communicator

 
  Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan's ground-breaking research has led to a better understanding of the biology of a variety of extinct and extant animals
 
  An enduring fascination with fossils
 
  A passionate science communicator, Anusuya has given numerous talks to raise awareness of science
Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan is inspired by the unknown. Not surprisingly, her research is focused on unravelling some of the mystery attached to the prehistoric animals that once roamed our continent.

Currently head of the University of Cape Town's (UCT) Department of Biological Sciences and former Director of the Natural History Collections at the Iziko Museums, Anusuya is highly respected world-wide for her work on microstructures of bones and teeth of dinosaurs (including fossil birds). Her ground-breaking research on the microstructure of fossil bone has led to a better understanding of the biology of a variety of extinct and extant animals, from the mammal-like reptiles of South Africa to dinosaurs and early birds.

"My research is a bit like CSI meets Jurassic Park," she says, "because palaeo-biologists work like detectives, considering every possible evidence and aspect about an extinct animal."

Anusuya is intrigued by the lives these extinct animals led, and she succeeds in passing this fascination on to a broader audience - she is constantly exploring new ways to engage with adults and children about her work.

In 2005 she published the internationally acclaimed The Microstructure of Dinosaur Bone: Deciphering biology with fine-scale techniques, the first book entirely devoted to fossil-bone microstructure. Her latest academic book, Forerunners of Mammals: Radiation. Histology. Biology, which looks at South Africa's famous mammal-like reptiles, was released in 2012.

Driven by a passion to communicate her work to a wider audience, especially to a young generation to expose them to science at an early age, she published a children's book, Famous Dinosaurs of Africa, in 2008. She incorporated an unsolved mystery into each chapter of this book.

"It is important that children realise that science is a body of knowledge that continues to grow and to which they can also contribute," she maintains. "We scientists need to make sure they don't lose their fascination of the natural world and that they have access to correct information."

Anusuya has also given numerous talks to raise awareness of science. "Promoting science should not only happen at university level, but should start at primary school. Children are naturally curious, but they seem to lose that curiosity during their school years," she says.

Her work has been recognised by several highly acclaimed awards: In 1995 she received an NRF President's Award, in 2005 she won the South African Woman of the Year Award, which acknowledges her contribution to science both in terms of research and science communication to the wider public. In 2005 she also won the "Distinguished Women Scientist Award" from the South African Department of Science and Technology.

International award for science communication

In December last year, Anusuya received an international top honour for popularising science in sub-Saharan Africa. She was awarded the World Academy of Science (TWAS) Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Prize for the Public Understanding and Popularisation of Science, one of five researchers from different regions of the developing world to win TWAS awards. Her co-winners are from Argentina, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Egypt.

Anusuya's activities in the field of science promotion include her having served as the Chair of the Advisory Board of Scifest Africa, the continent's biggest science festival, and being a member of the Advisory Board of the Cape Town Science Centre. She has also served as the director of the Iziko Museum's Natural History Collections. A TWAS fellow since 2009, Chinsamy-Turan is also a UCT Fellow and a fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa.

GetSETgo spoke to Anusuya about her passion for research and science communication, her future plans and the things in life that excite her most.

Tell us what your work entails

My academic position at UCT involves lecturing, research, supervision of postgraduate students and various administrative roles, both within my department and within the Science Faculty. By studying the biological signals recorded in the microscopic structure of bones of extinct and extant (modern) animals, I am able to deduce aspects of the biology of extinct animals, such as their developmental growth patterns.

I have done research on both modern animals such as crocodiles and other reptiles, and birds, as well as on fossil animals such as dinosaurs. During life, bone records various processes of growth, and therefore by examining the bone microstructure of modern animals, I am able to make deductions about what factors (e.g. seasonality, nutrition, disease) affected the growth and development of the animal.

I've done some ground-breaking work on the development of growth curves of dinosaurs and the factors that affected their growth and I am still contributing widely to the field of palaeo-biology. Together with co-workers I published the first-ever growth curve for a pterosaur (a flying reptile), thus providing a better understanding of their longevity and developmental patterns.

What does winning the TWAS award mean to you personally?

I do what I do without expecting anything in return, so it was wonderful to get the unexpected acknowledgement and recognition of my efforts. I feel that we still have so much to do, and I hope that other scientists will be inspired to talk about their research and motivate young people to consider careers in science.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the days of apartheid in an Indian township called Laudium, in the west of Pretoria.

What did you study after school? Where and why?

My inspiration for furthering my studies came from my parents and especially my father, a very 'liberated' school headmaster. He had three daughters and wanted only the best for us, especially a good education. My mother, who did not have the opportunity to be well educated, understood the value of a good education and always motivated us to excel at our studies.

In those days my options for university education were limited - as an Indian person I could attend the then University of Durban Westville, unless I obtained special permission to attend the so-called "white universities". I managed to obtain ministerial permission to attend Wits University, where I completed my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

I worked very hard and played very little since I knew I had to succeed. I wanted to become a successful teacher like my father and eldest sister (and most other people I looked up to), so after obtaining my BSc Honours degree I completed a Higher Diploma in Education. Although I have never taught officially in a school, I benefited enormously from the skills I developed for this diploma, and I still enjoy giving lectures at the university.

After my PhD I obtained a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation in the USA and attended the University of Pennsylvania for two years.

What are your future plans?

I have several interesting projects on the go. One of them is to finish off a new (popular) book about Africa's fossil heritage for Cambridge University Press. I am expecting the book to be published in 2014.

What is your favourite dish?

I love spicy food ...Indian, Mexican, Sichuan... must be in my genes!

What excites you most in life?

So many things excite me ... I just love life. I have an insatiable sense of curiosity about the world we live in. I love learning new things, and always feel that I can learn more and know more.

What are your favourite pastimes?

I have many interests, but reading takes top priority. I love photography and I also enjoy pottery, jewellery making and doing mosaics.

Would you like to tell us a little about your family?

I have two teenage sons, Evren and Altay. They both have a flair for maths, science and music - and even though they're into the usual teenager things (like computer games!), they both love reading! In fact, Evren blogs about books he reads, and already has quite a following. My husband, Yunus, a materials engineer, is an MD of a manufacturing company.

Do you have a special motto?

I believe that one must always do one's best in whatever one does.