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Scientist on a mission to save Africa’s forests

Roux is a professor in the department of microbiology and plant pathology at the University of Pretoria, a member of the management committee of the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute at the university and manager of the Tree Protection Co-operative Programme's field and extension services.

Her research focuses on the health of trees, mainly on the African continent, and in particular the diseases caused by fungi and associated insects.

"My priorities are student training through research and collaboration, as well as extension," says Roux. "We need to increase information on native biodiversity so that we can develop improved disease management strategies."

Very little is known about indigenous fungi in Africa. Fungi are microscopic organisms in their own taxonomic kingdom. All plants need them to survive but they can also cause diseases. "People often associate the word 'fungi' with a mushroom 'fairy ring' on the grass but what we see is only the fruiting structure of the fungus and, at that, only a small part of it. The rest is underground," says Roux.

<strong>Usable data</strong>
Roux has published over 100 papers on her research area and has successfully supervised six PhDs and 14 MSc students, with 14 more in the pipeline.

Roux serves on a number of international committees and is currently the coordinator for the International Union of Forestry Research Organisation's Division 7 Research Group on Forest Pathology. She says that collaboration is important because many of the pests and patho­gens are not unique to South Africa and information should be shared.

She is currently the vice-president of the Southern African Society for Plant Pathology, serves on the editorial boards of the South African Journal of Science, Tropical Plant Pathology and Forest Pathology, and is an honorary professor in the Chinese Academy of Forestry.

"Part of my work involves trans­lating scientific information into practical language so that the data is usable," says Roux. "We need to find better ways to communicate with people on the farm and in the forest. Stakeholder communications are becoming increasingly important as environmental pressure increases."

In 2011, she was awarded the Commonwealth Forestry Association's Queen's Award for Forestry, which is when she met Queen Elizabeth II. "The queen endorses the award that highlights contributions to forestry in an innovative way. However, she doesn't usually hand it over," says Roux.

Her Majesty made an exception in Roux's case because she is the first woman to receive the award, which has been made only 10 times since 1987.

So how is Roux's work and research innovative? "It's because I am addressing tree health by looking at fungi and diseases within the African context," says Roux.

"We also use DNA technology, which allows researchers to quickly identify a fungus, study its origin and understand the fungus genome more holistically."

The future in DNA sequencing will focus on identifying genes in trees and fungi that assist in pathogen control, she says.

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