Ancient flower dust with Adele Julier

Spring and summer in temperate zones herald the arrival of seasonal flowers and their friends, the bees, wasps and flies that 20171001-HEELEY-469 (1)pollinate them: a season of beauty and a season of dread for hay fever sufferers. Pollen, the tiny yellow powder from these flowers, makes the world go round, and it’s been around for millions of years. We’ve found fossils of ancient pollen, and they can tell us a lot about the ancient earth, and about ancient climates and ecosystems, and it’s the¬†palaeontology of ancient savannah¬†ecosystems that our next curator, Dr Adele Julier (@ACMJulier) is studying in her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Cape Town. Adele is a British scientist, and completed her doctorate in Modern Pollen-Vegetation Relationships in Ghana with the Open University. Adele’s also trained as a secondary school science teacher before beginning her postdoc in Cape Town, where she studies palaeoecology. Here’s Adele on her work.

“I always loved plants and just followed that passion as far as I could! I was really lucky to be able to do an excellent undergrad in Natural Sciences, specialising in Plant Science and Ecology, and then an MSc in Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plants. When I started my PhD (on Modern Pollen-Vegetation Relationships in Ghana) I had never worked with pollen, but quickly fell in love with it. After my PhD I did some freelance/short term contract work and a lot of tutoring, and then a year of being a high-school science teacher in the UK, before moving to South Africa to take up my current postdoctoral position.


Pollen is fascinating and beautiful, and can help us to unlock so many exciting stories from the past, helping us to understand how ecosystems respond to climate change, anthropogenic factors, and much more.


I have currently just started a project exploring how fire and vegetation interact in savanna ecosystems in southern Africa. This builds on my PhD work that dealt with how savanna-forest boundaries are represented by their pollen in modern samples, with a view to using that modern work to help us understand pollen we find in the fossil record.


Pollen can help us to understand the past, and therefore offers a path to better understanding the present and the future. For instance, wildfires are a pretty big issue in many parts of the world, but how do we know how often these occurred before humans were in the picture? How do we know what is ‘normal’ or ‘baseline’? Pollen records can help us to understand this, by providing information on how fires have affected ecosystems in the past, and therefore how they could be managed in the present day. I think pollen is something most people only associate with hay fever, so maybe it will be interesting for them to see that it has more uses and is important in understanding Earth’s history.


I have done a lot of work over the past few years with a charity called The Brilliant Club, who put PhDs and postdocs into state schools to deliver university-style tutorials to small groups of students from under-represented backgrounds with the potential to go to highly-selective universities. They have a small programme in South Africa too, so I am hoping to continue working with them here. Inequality in access to education is rampant and unacceptable, and we, as scientists and citizens need to be better at addressing this issue.


I am a singer, and so always try to be in a choir, and I have an Instagram account where I take pictures of small plants I see around and about (@pavementplants).


I love being outdoors in nature, so maybe a hike or a wander around a botanic garden (this is even better because all the plants are labelled, so you can check your IDs as you go and it’s like a big puzzle). Lots of nice food, maybe some wine, preferably outside in the sunshine.

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