#04 2022

Meet EFTEON’s new chief technician

Abri de Buys, who joined the Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network* (EFTEON) in June this year, is no stranger to SAEON. As the Fynbos Node’s technician for almost 12 years, he has been playing a vital role in the establishment and technical management of the node’s environmental observation network (Jonkershoek) as well as high-level data management. He sees his specific role as helping to produce quality data for the global scientific community.

EFTEON’s chief technician is expected to develop the technical aspects of the monitoring systems that are to be installed, and to roll out the monitoring infrastructure to six locations around the country, many of them remote. The data will be collected by technicians and scientists deployed to the EFTEON sites. The key role of the chief technician is to drive the development of the procedures to be used, the development of the site technicians and scientists and ensuring intercomparability between sites and over time.

SAEON eNews sat down with Abri to learn more about his exposure to global research and the challenges he will be facing in this new position.

Q. As a youngster, what was it that ignited your interest in the environment?  

I grew up in the Northern Cape on a sheep farm. Being surrounded by nature as a kid was obviously a huge privilege. My family was able to visit Kruger Park every second year since I was about nine years old, and this is what really got me interested.

In between visits to Kruger, my family used to watch the environmental television programme 50/50 religiously every Sunday. My grandfather had an old Roberts’ Birds of Southern Africa that got me interested in bird watching. I also started noticing the stark contrast between conserved ecosystems and land subject to the pressures of farming in such a dry area. I decided to study conservation when I was about 15.

Q. With your qualifications mainly focused on nature conservation, you began your career with jobs that many young people across the world can only dream of ­– first as a field guide in the Kruger National Park, then as a junior specialist field logistics coordinator in the Kruger Park’s Northern Plains Programme, followed by a stint as research technician where you also did work for the Kruger Park’s River Savanna Boundaries Programme. What would you rate as your main learning experiences during this time?

I was based at the Shingwedzi camp in Kruger Park (for my practical year of the Conservation diploma), where they had just established the Shingwedzi research camp. This meant I was exposed to a range of visiting researchers and their projects in addition to my field guiding job responsibilities. When the field logistics coordinator/research assistant positions opened up I was in a good position to apply. The fact that there was such a variety of research projects plus reserve management activities fitted perfectly with my curiosity and fascination with my surroundings. I loved learning from the different projects and seeing how they contribute to the SANParks strategic adaptive management.

It is hard to pinpoint something that stands out. I guess from a science support perspective, dealing with many different personalities and trying to match their goals and expectations with what we were able to offer as science support staff in such a remote area was an enduring lesson. It was fun at times when we had to be creative in the face of obstacles and pulled it off and difficult at times when we weren’t.

Q. You subsequently went to the USA where you were employed as a staff research associate at the University of California in Davis, USA. How did that come about, and how do you foresee that this exposure to international research will benefit your work at EFTEON? 

Some of the American principal investigators of the River Savanna Boundaries Programme that I had worked with closely continued with research projects in Kruger Park after the programme came to an end. I kept in touch with them even after I left SANParks in 2005 and continued helping them organise and run field campaigns at Shingwedzi.

At this time one of the principal investigators, Dr Mary Cadenasso, started a new lab at the University of California in Davis and there was an opportunity to join her lab to help with the analyses of the Kruger Park data we had been collecting. It was a great experience working at a university where resources to do a job well were not in short supply and being in an environment with different lab groups. I got to see how this environment allows people to excel and of course there were new lab members joining with interesting projects and well-trained people to learn things from.

I would like to think that experience helps me to think bigger than I otherwise would have. With EFTEON being well-supported by the Department of Science and Innovation, I hope we can roll out a world-class instrument network and maintain it at that standard in the long term.

Q. After returning to South Africa, you were employed as a technician at SAEON’s Fynbos Node for almost 12 years, where you were involved in the technical management of a long-term environmental observation network as well as high-level data management. With time, your initial interest in conservation seems to have become more focused on the science behind conservation projects – systems ecology, urban ecology, management of coordinated monitoring platforms, data management, fog ecohydrology, spatial analysis, science and management linkages. Was this a natural progression? Please tell us more about the reasons behind this shift in focus.

My interest in the environment has always been to learn how things work and why they work the way they do. When I started studying conservation, I was very naive. Over time I have come to realise that while a good understanding of intact ecosystems, such as one finds in nature reserves, is important, it is equally or more important to understand the drivers at play outside these areas because this is where the threats and pressures are coming from. Human modified landscapes can teach us a lot.

I am obviously not trained to develop my own research programmes or lead my own research teams, so joining an organisation that has a broader aim than just studying conservation ecology is the next best thing. My skill set has shifted over time because of job requirements.  

Q. What attracted you to this key position within EFTEON*? Please give our readers a concise overview of what your position at EFTEON entails. 

I think the explicit intention of EFTEON to include social-ecological research was a drawcard. I am looking forward to seeing how that develops. Given what I mentioned previously, this is something I feel is lacking and overlooked by ecologists who are not really trained to study this important area, although things are improving. It is very early days for EFTEON in terms of roll out, so I expect this position is going to evolve a lot. Thus far I have been straddling Fynbos Node and EFTEON while a new Fynbos Node manager and replacement Fynbos Node technician were/are being appointed. There is quite a bit of experience that needs to be transferred and training to be done to ensure continuity.

I have also been involved in the recruitment process of new EFTEON instrument technicians while familiarising myself with some of the EFTEON Landscapes and leading a tender process that, among other things, will help ensure our technicians get more formal training.

Q. During your time at the Fynbos Node you gained valuable field and lab experience in long-term research into landscapes, plants, soils and animals. How will this apply to your work at EFTEON? 

My main responsibility at the Fynbos Node was managing the Jonkershoek experimental catchment instrument network and the data emanating from there. Some of the data management infrastructure required to accommodate these data sets as well as the vast historical data sets SAEON inherited from the CSIR was being developed at the same time, with my input from a data provider and user’s perspective.

I think the experience I gained through my involvement in almost all aspects of the data production pipeline – from instrument installation to data publication – prepared me well for EFTEON where we will use the same types of instruments and data management facilities. Knowing the existing infrastructure is also valuable when we need to introduce new equipment and data streams.

Q. Your key responsibilities at EFTEON include the technical training and mentoring of six junior site and laboratory technicians. Have you been involved in such training programmes before? How will your work be integrated with that of the technicians at the various SAEON nodes? 

I have mentored several interns using the Fynbos Node monitoring network as a training platform and trained quite a few colleagues on some of our data curation procedures. We are working on putting more formal instrument training courses for technicians and scientists in place that everyone in SAEON who needs training can benefit from. This will help technicians with self-taught experience like myself and others confirm and build on what we know and will obviously go a long way with the new technicians joining EFTEON.

That said, experience cannot be taught in a classroom, so I (and other experienced technicians at SAEON) will continue to share what we have learnt. We have a culture of helping each other at SAEON. Regarding integration with other SAEON technicians, many of the EFTEON landscapes overlap with Node monitoring networks. This means we will need to ensure we standardise and calibrate our networks, which is something SAEON has been working towards anyway. Other than that, I will see how the role evolves and where I need to focus most of my attention.

Q. How will you ensure that your instrumentation and sampling protocols and procedures remain current and comply with international best practices? And with measurement traceability to national (NMISA) and international standards? 

This is a big challenge given my formal training background and will be one of my main tasks in this position. I have been pushing for more formal instrument calibration and quality management for SAEON’s weather instruments for a few years. I have a basic understanding of different standards, accreditation bodies and what the traceability hierarchy should be for most sensor types. My technician peers and I have written up extensive protocols with standards, instrument specifications, installation guidelines and maintenance procedures that are under continuous development and review. Calibration and formal/standardised data quality management are somewhat lagging for several sensor types.

Since joining EFTEON I have helped address this by identifying what tools we need to fill some of the gaps, and I am working on procuring the tools and training. I have also been liaising with the South African Weather Service to establish a SAEON parallel setup for radiation sensor calibration and am developing that relationship so we can collaborate on things like instrument inter-comparisons in future. This position will require a greater level of engagement with peer organisations internationally that I’d had before, which I intend to take advantage of where possible.  

Q. You have mentioned that your interests include popular writing as well as the science–management nexus. How do you see these interests being of benefit in your new position? 

At the moment I feel like a stronger focus on instruments is removing me from those interests. Popular writing such as e-news articles and other translations of science into understandable, relatable language on multiple platforms are becoming more essential by the day. Hopefully we can get a SAEON creative science communication department off the ground some time! Maybe I’ll consider a transfer 😉

Q. We are approaching critical environmental limits – nationally, Africa-wide and globally. What role do you see your work at EFTEON playing in the prevention and mitigation of climate risks and climate change? 

This partly touches on science communication to which I will return. I have often likened long-term environmental monitoring by government institutions to an accurate measure of the temperature in the proverbial pot while the frog boils to death. Any serious observer is aware that there is a significant mismatch between what our political economy allows and what our planet needs. I will leave that there for the reader to draw their own conclusions.

This is why I feel that science communication directly with the public is of utmost importance. I believe that in a functioning democracy, a public that has solid information at their disposal can and will translate that information into sensible proposals, policies and practices. This specific role at EFTEON is to help produce quality data for the global scientific community. Whether the data are used to provide evidence that pushes for positive change is not a foregone conclusion, but perhaps with a stronger social-ecological focus that will change.

Q. You obviously have a hectic schedule. Does that leave any time for hobbies? If yes, what are these? 

I am supposed to be studying at the same time, but I have been reasonably good at maintaining work/life balance. I spend a lot of my free time working on/restoring old cars.

* The Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON) is a research infrastructure that has been developed under the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR) programme. EFTEON is intended to provide a platform of well-instrumented landscapes to the South African and international research community, to facilitate research into global change, ecosystem processes and social-ecological interactions. It will provide data for remote sensing as well as model validation and calibration.

Hanging on a tower – a selfie with EFTEON’s flux instrument against the beautiful Jonkershoek background (Photo: Abri de Buys)

Field lunch – taking a break while installing sapflow sensors in the Swartberg with Rob Skelton (Photo: Robert Skelton)

Climbing to the high-elevation Dwarsberg weather station in Jonkershoek (Photo: Abri de Buys)

Visiting the Benfontein savanna flux tower with EFTEON for the first time in 2019 (Photo: Kerneels Jaars)

Working in the Kruger National Park in September 2001 (Photo: Murray Ralfe)

Abri (left) and Rob Skelton looking for Protea pruinosa in the Swartberg and not finding them because everything is covered in snow and ice (Photo: Abri de Buys)

Showing learners what a weather station looks like and talking about what it does during a Fynbos Node outreach event (Photo: Elvirena Coetzee)

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