UJ Zoologist explores personality bias desirable for scientific breakthroughs

Professorial Inaugural address: Prof Peter Teske

Scientists need to understand that to advance science one must do more than to follow tried and tested approaches. Instead, one needs to take the time to explore data in great detail to detect patterns that are not immediately obvious, constantly question oneself and others, and formulate bold hypotheses that can be challenged, according to Peter Teske, a Professor of Zoology at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

He argued that making an effort to acquire mastermind personalities such as introverted, intuitive, thinking and judging (INTJ) personality traits should be quite useful to help anyone establish themselves in their chosen field of research when he delivered his inaugural address on Wednesday, 10 March 2021, entitled ‘An introvert’s guide to advancing science.

Prof Teske’s address focused on INTJ people who are often able to define a compelling, long-range vision and can devise innovative solutions to complex problems.

He highlighted numerous examples during his career where typical INTJ traits resulted in scientific advancement. These included: a challenge of the idea that animals in South Africa’s estuaries are arranged along a salinity gradient; (2) a critique of thousands of studies that have used mitochondrial DNA for intraspecific molecular dating; (3) criticism of a similarly large number of studies that have used mitochondrial DNA to test for correlations between genetic and geographic distance; (4) and efforts aimed at understanding why widespread marine species tend to be subdivided into genetically distinction populations along South Africa’s coastline, with an assessment of the importance of genetic markers and species’ dispersal ability in creating these patterns.

Prof Teske stressed three important traits in this context – the lack of respect for established hierarchies, the tendency to search for structure where others see only chaos, and the tendency to challenge the status quo.

Prof Teske pointed out that while INTJs can be challenging at school and on undergraduate level, because they may not respect a teacher whom they have classified as incompetent, these characteristics can all be very useful to an emerging scientist. Not accepting hierarchies means that INTJs can establish highly diverse teams, or promote promising students whom they consider their equal. Further, the tendency to explore patterns can result in a deeper understanding of existing knowledge, while challenging the status quo can challenge paradigms and advance science.

“In my opinion, many younger scientists in South Africa are too respectful of their elders, which often results in them repeating established research on a different study system rather than improving upon it,” said Prof Teske.

Prof Teske completed his BSc/BSc honours (zoology) and MSc (estuarine ecology) at the University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela University), followed by a PhD on the population genetics and phylogenetic placement of the endangered Knysna seahorse at Stellenbosch University. To acquire new skills in a rapidly developing research field, Prof. Teske then spent several years in Australia, first in Sydney and then in Adelaide.

Prof Teske has been instrumental in introducing 4IR technologies to the biological sciences at UJ, including genomics, transcriptomics and metabarcoding. All these methods rely on the generation of large amounts of DNA data using massively parallel sequencing, coupled with cutting-edge cluster computing.

His research group uses these technologies to advance marine biological research in southern Africa, with the aim of improving the management of exploited or threatened species. By doing so, Prof Teske often challenges long-established paradigms. Current research projects include genomic and transcriptomic research to understand the KwaZulu-Natal sardine run, population genomic research aimed at improving the management of the critically endangered estuarine pipefish (Africa’s rarest fish), and metabarcoding projects aimed at documenting the biodiversity of estuaries from northern Mozambique to the Eastern Cape.

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