PhD Graduate Awarded for Outstanding Achievement Shortly before her Death

Dr Jenny Russell received the Grassland Society of Southern Africa (GSSA) medal for outstanding academic achievement, awarded for her exceptional PhD in Grassland Science, shortly before her death earlier this month.

Russell had returned to UKZN to pursue her master’s and PhD degrees decades after she completed her undergraduate and honours studies in Biological Sciences at the then University of Natal in the 1980s, her honours project involving a study of bush encroachment in the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. She then worked for The Valley Trust as an ecology education facilitator, before spending several years focusing on motherhood.

Turning to storytelling as an offshoot career, she became a professional battlefield guide in KwaZulu-Natal, where she passionately shared the beauty of South Africa and vivid battle stories with foreign visitors.

Spending much of her time in Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift and Fugitives’ Drift, Russell began to consider re-entering a career that involved working with the natural environment. Her concern that a long absence from the field would prevent this was met with a suggestion that she pursue a master’s degree, and encouraged by Professor Pat Berjak, she decided to enrol.

Her quest for a suitable topic was aided by the gift of a book from Professor William Bond comparing paintings done during the Anglo Zulu wars with modern photographs, produced by famed historian David Rattray. Bond suggested a study comparing the vegetation change in the intervening years, and Russell embarked on the project under the supervision of Professor David Ward, her battlefield experience and knowledge of the area providing access to a suitable supply of photographs from the war years.

After completing her master’s degree, Russell started doctoral studies on a topic suggested by Ward and supervised by Dr Michelle Tedder, tracking 60 years of woody encroachment in the Van Reenen’s Pass district where her brother-in-law farms. The farming community made sites at appropriate altitudes available to her.

She found that the level of encroachment decreased with increasing altitude, that the influence of grassland management regimes on woody species differed depending on altitude, and that climate, in particular temperature, was a likely driver of paperbark thorn (Vachellia sieberiana) distribution.

Tedder praised Russell for her success in securing funding for her research – she sourced donations of many of the required supplies from various places, and sponsorship for running costs from the N3 Toll Commission, despite the organisation previously only funding undergraduate projects. Russell also received a National Research Foundation Innovation Doctoral Scholarship for her PhD research.

Her investigations not only earned her the GSSA medal, but the results were published in the African Journal of Range and Forage Science and the South African Journal of Botany.  She graduated in April 2019.

Aiming to contribute to the scientific body of knowledge, Russell was happy to see her publications gain citations.

Russell, a self-deprecating person according to her husband Peter’s description, excelled despite insisting that she was not master’s material, and then not doctoral material, and was pleased and surprised to receive the GSSA award recognising her achievements.

Russell and her family moved to Mpumalanga this year, where she established contacts with organisations she hoped to work with before a decline in health halted her plans.

Russell thanked Ward and Tedder for their guidance, and Mr Stuart Demmer for assistance with results analysis. She also thanked the farmers who made land available, and the numerous individuals and organisations that provided material and financial support.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied