Professor Steven Johnson, a research professor at UKZN whose expertise lies in the ecology, evolution and chemistry of plant-animal interactions has been awarded the South African Association of Botanists (SAAB) Gold Medal.
The medal is the association’s premier acknowledgement for outstanding botanical research and contributions to the advancement of botany in South Africa, presented only in exceptional circumstances to outstanding candidates.
Johnson, who is internationally recognised for his leadership in the field of plant pollination biology and is one of the University’s most prolific researchers, received the Gold Medal Award at the 48th annual SAAB meeting hosted by the University of Limpopo in Polokwane under the theme: Plants, Health and Prosperity.
The University congratulated him on his well-deserved award, with the Dean and Head of the School of Life Sciences, Professor Ademola Olaniran, crediting him for continuing to fly the flag of the Institution high.
The award adds to Johnson’s growing list of accolades – he holds an A1 research rating from the National Research Foundation (NRF), was made a Fellow of UKZN in 2016, and is a recipient of the UKZN Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s Award and the NRF President’s Award.
Johnson, who held the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI)-NRF South African Research Chair in Evolutionary Biology for 15 years, is a past member of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology, and in 2019 – with the launch of UKZN’s Centre for Functional Biodiversity (CFB) – became the Centre’s director. He oversees its work to strengthen and consolidate efforts to meet the threats of environmental change in KwaZulu-Natal by producing robust research on the biodiverse region’s flora and fauna.
Johnson joined the staff of the then University of Natal in 1997 (now UKZN) after PhD studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT), postdoctoral research fellowships at the University of Haifa in Israel and Uppsala University in Sweden, and the Smuts Fellowship at UCT. He attained the rank of full professor in 2007 and has supervised 40 postgraduate students and 27 postdoctoral researchers.
His extensive research on the ecology, evolution and chemistry of plant-animal interactions has so far resulted in the publication of 356 peer-reviewed scientific articles and four books.
Johnson has served on the editorial boards of several international scientific journals and delivered numerous international talks and public lectures.
Interested in understanding the reproductive ecology and evolutionary diversification of plants and in the chemical ecology of plant-animal interactions, Johnson has established a state-of-the-art laboratory at UKZN to identify the chemical composition and biological functions of volatile emissions from plants.
He has been involved in world-first studies including the discovery of the sexual exploitation of beetles for pollination by a near-extinct orchid and the first case of lizard pollination on the African continent.
Words: Christine Cuénod