Are you fascinated by biology, have an analytical and curious mind and great people skills? Maybe a career as a nematologist is for you.

“Agriculture is linked to one of society’s basic needs, the need for sustenance,” says Dr Mariette Marais (57), a nematologist at the Agricultural Research Council’s (ARC) plant health and protection unit.

Wait, hold up a nema-what? A nematologist is someone who studies microscopic roundworms called nematodes and their interaction with plants. As a biosystematics specialist Marais studies the genetic evolution of plant and animal populations. Using her skills in identification and systematics to help clients, mostly farmers, who in turn take care of our food security in Mzansi.

Some of her proudest career moments include obtaining her doctoral degree and having the opportunity to identify, describe and name a new species. Her advice to youngsters is to “always make use of an opportunity given to you, never stop learning and most of all enjoy what you are doing”.

If this career or field of study interests you and if you want to play a small, yet vital role in South Africa’s agricultural industry then follow Dr Marais’ advice. Over the next few weeks we will also feature many more careers in the agri sector to choose from on Food for Mzansi and 19 radio stations all over the country.

Ok, now it’s over to Dr Mariette Marais, nematologist at ARC:

  1. Could you sum up your job for us? As a nematologist, I work with or on nematodes. A mostly microscopic roundworm. Nematodes or eelworms are some of the true worms of the animal kingdom. In my speciality of biosystematiscs I use skills in identification and systematics to deliver a service to clients that are responsible for South Africa’s food security.
  2. So, what does the day-to-day of your job entail? I spend time in the field assessing trials or collecting samples. Other times I work in the extraction laboratory or in front of the computer writing proposals, reports or working on a paper or even doing a bit of number crunching. Then I also spend time in front of the microscope immersed in the wonderful world of nematodes.
  3. What qualification do you need for this career? You need a Master of Science (MSc) in nematology and then a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nematode Systematics.
  4. What are the character traits you need to be great at your job? You need to be extremely inquisitive, passionate to know how organisms function and have a good analytical brain. Then something that I did not realise as a student or even a young scientist, you do need good communication skills.
  5. What subjects do I need to become a nematologist? You will need a background in biology (life sciences) and natural sciences and mathematics. In South Africa some universities offer undergraduate training in nematology.
  6. What do you love about agriculture as a space to work in? Agriculture is linked to one of society’s basic needs, the need for sustenance. It is one of the foundation stones on which our society depends. In agriculture you are also part of the yearly seasonal changes, spring with the promise of new life and the start of our rain season, summer associated with growth, autumn with the grace of a harvest and winter with time of rest and the hope of a new beginning in the spring.
    I also think that in agriculture we are blessed with a wide spectrum of role players, from young, upcoming farmers and colleagues to the colleagues and farmers that have so much experience and knowledge.
  7. Don’t be modest, tell us about your proudest career moments? This is always difficult, but here goes. I am proud of obtaining a PhD and will never forget having my first paper published or having the opportunity of describing and naming a species. I am extremely proud of every student that I mentored or supervised.
  8. What do you do when you’re not at work? Except for all of the very unglamorous tasks of day to day living, what I do love is to read, a bit of birding and walking and then to experience the joy of music. From the early morning calls of the olive thrushes to Valentina Lisitsa playing Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto. My ultimate guilty pleasure is quiz shows. From the UK’s “QI” and “Tipping Point” and SA’s “Blitsbrein”. The only time that I do not mind getting stuck in traffic is listening to the different radio stations version of this format of radio.
  9. Any advice for young people who are inspired by your career story here on AgriSETA Learner Connect? Always make use of an opportunity given to you, never stop learning and most of all enjoy what you are doing.
  10. Where can I study to become a nematologist? Nematology are taught at a number of universities as part of undergraduate or post graduate courses. These include the University of the Free State, University of Limpopo, University of Stellenbosch and North West University.
The article is originally published at food for mzansi.