Growing up in Paarl, Dr Erna Blancquaert was fascinated by the descriptors of wines on the labels of bottles.
“Lemon, guava, litchi, cherry, tobacco… I wondered how this could be if grapes don’t taste like that?” she recalls.
This former learner of Klein Nederburg Secondary School then decided to pursue a degree in viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University (SU), becoming not only the first member of her family to study at SU but also the first black woman to receive a PhD in viticulture. She received her doctoral degree in 2015.
“Being the first black woman to receive this degree was a very humbling experience. Many times, there is an association with black researchers that they are unable and unfit to achieve excellence. It is a tough road to walk, but my advice is: Pursue your dreams and if you really want to achieve it, you will. Nothing is impossible.”
Erna is grateful to a number of remarkable women who serve as role models.
“Professors Anna-Maria Botha-Oberholster and Melané Vivier are at the top of the list for their resilience and tenacity in their respective research fields. They are phenomenal mentors who are always there for young academics like me,” she says.
She was appointed as teaching assistant at SU during the first year of her master’s degree and as a junior lecturer in May 2009, after obtaining her master’s degree.
“Having a hand in educating the future viticulturists and winemakers of South Africa is very rewarding, but the best part of my job is being outside, walking in the vineyards and finding solutions to research problems.”
Her studies and career choice have given her the opportunity to meet world-renowned scientists in the fields of viticulture and oenology, while the rich diversity on SU’s campus provided opportunities to have a better understanding of people and how to work together.
At the moment, she is a Fulbright African research scholar at Washington State University in the USA, based at the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Centre in Prosser.
“I applied for the programme as I did not have the opportunity to do a post-doctoral fellowship. This allows me to work in the laboratory of Distinguished Professor Markus Keller.
“It has been a very fruitful period,” she says. “It’s a lot of paperwork, but what is paperwork when you can meet excellent researchers in agriculture, learn a new culture and do field work in the richest agricultural areas in the United States.”
Erna’s biggest motivation for success is her husband Maarten and 3-year-old son Josh.
- By Pia Nänny -