Ethan Newman

Evolutionary plant biologist

Ethan Newman’s first memory of nature is of Cape sugarbirds screaming while they searched for nectar. His first conscious interaction came through searching for padloper tortoises under the fynbos of his native Grabouw, in the Western Cape. That kindled a passion that bloomed into a career in the biological sciences.

Always hungry to learn more — and create more knowledge about South Africa’s natural systems — Newman is working towards starting up his own laboratory. Its main focus will be on conducting research into evolutionary biology — why things have come to be the way that they are. This will give him the tools to research how aspects of the world work. In a country where evolution is entwined with the land, this is particularly important.

Getting to that dream involves a constant balance between being in the field, where he enjoys the incredible diversity of flowering plants and pollinators in the Cape Floristic Region, and sitting behind a desk so he can collate his findings and communicate them to the public.

Finding that balance has made him live a considered life. Each day is meticulously planned, allowing him to jump out of bed with an idea of what he needs to get done. The world encourages quick fixes and, as a result, people survive by using over-the-counter drugs to battle work-induced stress. Newman yearns for a society that keeps things simple, so people turn back to nature, helping them rekindling their link with the Earth. His hope is that this shift will lead to more sustainable development.

This is already happening in South Africa’s environmental sector, and Newman is at the forefront of that change, kindling passion to bring about tangible change. Seeing this change happen makes him believe that humanity will one day overcome its destructive tendencies.

Gardening, hiking, running and cycling get him out into nature. Photographing pollinators in action allows him to mix work and fun. But his favourite pastime comes when he gets to spend time fishing for galjoen, South Africa’s national fish. — Sipho Kings