Alumni Digital Newsletter | Issue 1 | Winter 2017

Tell us about yourself?
I grew up in Alexandra, Johannesburg and went to school at Skeen Primary and Northview High School. I come from a big family where we interact a lot with each other. I spent most holidays visiting my families in Mokopane and Polokwane in the Limpopo province, so I tend to be very social and gravitate towards people.

I am a very proud mom and enjoy spending time outdoors with my kids. Often they come with me to collect ants or sort ants in the lab on weekends.They are very up to date with my research.

You came to Stellenbosch University as a first-year student in 2001. Now you are a postdoctoral fellow in the Science Faculty. Why did you choose Maties?
Maties came as an opportunity to me. The university had a recruitment drive at my school. A few of us were selected and given the opportunity to apply and to write the entrance exam at our school. At the time I had already applied to Rhodes University, so I was never planning to study close to home. I was awarded a bursary and so I came here.

My undergrad was very challenging, but I think I really made the most of it. I was very involved in campus activities and also became a member of the Maties Dance Society. This contributed to my growth and strengthened my leadership skills.

Most of the people I studied with have long gone and every time we meet or make contact, it’s always the same question “what are you still doing there?” In my undergrad, I was a research assistant to Dr Brent Sinclair, then a Postdoc of Prof Steven Chown, for the last two years of my studies. He really challenged me and involved me in all of his research. I later joined the lab of Prof Chown as an honours student where I started to learn and work on invasive species and continued studying as a Masters, PhD and Postdoc with Prof Theresa Wossler, working on the invasive Argentine ant and funded by the Centre of Invasion Biology. Currently I am still a postdoc and funded by the National Research Foundation.

My research has kept me here. I really enjoy my work and the fact that my knowledge centre is here, moving was not really a consideration. I am actively engaged with researchers in international laboratories and within Africa, so I feel very connected as a scientist.

When did you know you wanted to be in this particular field?
I always loved being outdoors and loved animals, and in general was very curious about my surroundings. When we visited at my aunt’s home, I would go to the nature reserve close to the house, and I would collect insects and lizards and sometimes even catch field mice. A field trip to the Kruger National Park, and a veld school cemented my love for the environment and increased my awareness. So I think this started when I was very young and was nurtured by the varied experiences I had while growing up until today. I say that because even today my career is being shaped by varied experiences and situations.

Your family must be proud?
Most people in my family (including my friends) are not very surprised about where I am right now in my career. It took a lot to explain what I do. My late sister used to make me explain to her when I was writing up my data. This helped me so much when I started doing science communication, to have to break down complex information. She was extremely supportive and used to sit up with my daughter while I was writing up my MSc thesis in the dead of night. This was a real sacrifice and it showed immense support and belief in me.
I believe my family is very proud of me and how far I have come. They also tell me a lot, especially my little sister who is like my social media guru. She will share any news widely on Facebook and always tells me how proud she is, so that is a huge motivation.

Share with us some of your memories as a student.
My fondest memories are all mostly with the Maties Dance Society. I spent most of my life there, after class and when I finished at the lab. Dance was an integral part of my campus life and I completely immersed myself in the experience. I have made lifelong friends.

What dreams do you have for your future?
I like to believe that I live my life with an aim to have social impact. I love academia because of the countless opportunities to have an impact on the lives of others, to share and to equip others with knowledge. I am here because others made an impact in my life.
I am working towards ending up in a space where I can apply myself more so I can make a difference. I am interested in strengthening research connections within Africa and addressing challenging socio-economic challenges where science, policy and law meet. I would like to be more actively involved in generating African-focused research, and to play a role in changing the perceptions of Africa and African knowledge.

Any thoughts that you would like to share?
We should never fear to take risks and grab opportunities as they come. We should open ourselves up to learn something new every day. Fear is a thief and can lead us to isolation. I believe that working together creates a space for innovation and we need this innovation to drive South Africa forward, to drive Africa forward.
Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” We should find ways to improve access to education and opportunities for our young people in South Africa.


Dr Mothapo on her research on the invasive Argentine ant species:
This ant is quite something. If you ever have to think about the process of colonisation, displacing and exterminating the native inhabitants, and taking over. This process is exactly how Argentine ants successfully spread across the globe. They have successfully invaded every continent on earth except Antarctica. They form these huge supercolonies where workers are not aggressive to each other but aggressive to other ant species.
Many of us don’t know that ant colonies are made up of genetically related sisters, yes! They are all female, sterile and all cooperatively living with each other. Only the queen reproduces, and the males are produced in the spring when they will singly mate and then die. Ants also recognise friend from foe by using a chemical signal known as cuticular hydrocarbons that occur on the body of the ant. Ants from the same colony all have the same cuticular hydrocarbon profile, like a membership badge. Ants will attack and kill any ant that does not smell like their own. This strict recognition system ensures that the colony is protected from invasion by other ants and that energy is not spent on unrelated individuals, ensuring strong co-operation in food gathering and defence.

Argentine ants have taken this co-operation to a whole new level, forming a new social order known as unicoloniality where aggression and territoriality is foregone, instead cooperating with each other in conquering new territories and annihilating anything in their path. They form giant supercolonies consisting of billions of ants and queens cooperatively living in millions of nests, and spanning massive geographic distances. Members of the same supercolony share the same genetic makeup and do not mix with members from other supercolonies, ensuring a pure gene pool maintained by mutual aggression. This is because these introduced populations are descendants of the small pockets of ants that were originally introduced in a particular area.

I am totally fascinated by them. I know they are bad for the environment, but I am fascinated by their ability to create an allegiance of this magnitude, only paralleled by that of humans.

For my research, I am interested in how they impact the native ants and how this cascades into a community. I study their behaviour and how they compete with native ants for food and space. I am also involved with collaborators in Japan studying their introduction history, and we have a collaborator in the States with whom we are investigating targeted control of the Argentine ant.