Lydia Cape

Environmental scientist, CSIR

Lydia Cape’s love of the outdoors comes from her parents, who spent their time outdoors, hiking and climbing up things. That made her curious, and they indulged her constant questioning, spending copious amounts of time explaining how the world works.

She started off with a BSc in biochemistry, but soon realised that she didn’t want to pursue a career where she would be locked up in laboratory all day. She moved on to do a master of sciences in applied ecology, with a specialisation in environmental management, from the University of Kiel in Germany. Her thesis was a spatial simulation, modelling alternative land use strategies, at the University of Adelaide.

With her degrees in the bag, she started at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 2011. Applying her environmental management skills, she started managing projects across the country. This led to her working on South Africa’s renewable energy build, as project manager for the solar photovoltaic area of the CSIR’s strategic environmental assessment into wind and solar development zones. These are areas where the environmental tests are done before development, so companies can start construction almost straight away.

But this was not enough. She is now project managing the strategic environmental assessment for the Square Kilometre Array, one of the world’s biggest scientific projects. Her goal is to do the kind of work that ensures the ambitious goals in the National Development Plan unfold in the real world.

Cape spends a lot of time lecturing and speaking at places such as the University of Cape Town. She has also turned her work into papers, which she presents around the world.

She spends her spare time outdoors, running with her dog, or hiking with her husband at the weekend. In 2012 they climbed Kilimanjaro, and she has done a five-day hike in Patagonia. — Sipho Kings