Double Celebration for Husband and Wife Team
Dr Keenan Stears graduated with a PhD degree in Ecological Sciences from the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science; while his wife Ms Melissa Schmitt’s Masters cum laude Degree was upgraded to PhD research level status.
Stears’s elated parents, retired UKZN academics, Michele and Louw-Haardt Stears, were role models for their son. 'We always knew Keenan's work ethic and dedication would stand him in good stead,' said Michele.
Stears was exposed to wildlife from a young age, and his fascination in the natural world led him to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Ecology degree. After his BSc (Honours) degree, he worked as a field guide at a private game reserve. During this time, he developed an interest in species interactions and the effects they had on plant and animal communities. This interest guided him to pursue his MSc Degree, working on the foraging decisions of group-living herbivores.
Stears’ passion to supervise students and conduct his own research led him to undertake his PhD studies on the foraging ecology of orbi antelope (Ourebia ourebi).
His doctoral research focused on how seasonal changes in grass quality, interactions with cattle, and perceived predation risk influenced oribi foraging behaviour and landscape use. The results from this research were applied to a protected area in the Natal Midlands to determine if this information could be used to help identify the mechanisms resulting in a decreasing oribi population.
During his post-graduate studies at UKZN, Stears met his wife, Melissa Schmitt, who was doing a BSc degree. Schmitt’s subsequent MSc research involved developing a carrying-capacity model for elephants in an effort to predict appropriate population sizes for protected areas. The carrying-capacity model incorporated the effects of tannins (which have anti-nutritional qualities) in elephants’ food items as well as the ability of elephants to neutralise a certain amount of these chemicals.
Schmitt’s fascination with the natural world as well as the influence of her parents, Professor Russel Schmitt and Professor Sally Holbrook from the University of California, led her to undertake an MSc in Ecology. ‘I find foraging ecology captivating, so I decided to focus on factors that influence foraging decisions for my MSc,’ she said. ‘My parents and in-laws have shown me how to balance lecturing, research and family life.’
Both sets of parents, as well as Schmitt, joined the academic procession at the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science’s graduation ceremony held in Pietermaritzburg on 21 April.
‘Keenan and Melissa are two of the best students that I have ever had,’ said supervisor and senior lecturer in the School of Life Sciences, Dr Adrian Shrader. ‘Based on the quality of the work that they have produced, I truly feel that they have extremely promising scientific careers ahead of them.’ The couple already have first author publications in leading international journals, with Stears's work being published in Public Library of Science (PLoS) One, and Schmitt’s being published in Animal Behaviour.
Currently Schmitt is working on her PhD at UKZN whilst Stears is lecturing a third year course in Ecology. Stears has secured a postdoctoral position at the University of California in Santa Barbara and will conduct research in Tanzania on hippopotamus ecology.