- Question Daniel David: Please introduce yourself briefly.
I am Professor at the Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at UBB (Babeș-Bolyai University) and I am currently serving as the Project Manager of the scientific exploratory project entitled “Age, growth and architecture of monumental angiosperm trees assessed by AMS radiocarbon investigation and climate research performed by stable isotope analysis of wood samples collected from such trees”. This project is highly interdisciplinary, combining the expertise of inorganic and analytical chemists, nuclear physicists, biologists and botanists. The project is based on AMS (accelerator mass spectrometry) radiocarbon dating, which represents the main investigation method. It is a radiometric dating procedure, pertaining to both physics and nuclear chemistry. Over the past 15 years, I have been the exclusive lecturer of the course on nuclear chemistry, also called radiochemistry, which includes a special chapter dedicated to radiocarbon dating.
- Question Daniel David: Please address the outstanding academic achievement which brought forth this interview.
You are referring to the paper “The demise of the largest and oldest African baobabs”, recently published in Nature Plants, of which I am the first author and the corresponding author, as well. Although first appeared in 2015, by now the journal has an impact factor of 11.471. The article discloses some important results of the assessment by radiocarbon dating of the architecture, age and growth/development of monumental African baobabs. These results were obtained by the international research team, which I am leading. Basically, we investigated all or almost all known monumental baobabs in the tropics. Our main finding demonstrates that, since 2005, 9 of the 13 oldest and 5 of the 6 largest African baobabs have died. When taking into consideration that baobabs can reach ages over 2,000 years and there was no sign of any epidemic, this fact is astounding. All the demises of monumental baobabs were recorded in southern Africa. We believe that this outcome is associated with recent climate changes, which indicate severe consequences in southern Africa due to the major intensification of the El Niño effect/phase of the ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) index. This determined an unprecedented combination of two factors, namely high temperature and extreme drought.
Our international research team includes other scientists from UBB, such as Prof. Dr. Laszlo Rákosy and Ph.D. student Roxana Pătruţ, from the Faculty of Biology and Geology, and additional research scientists from South Africa and other African countries, and of course, from the USA as all radiocarbon investigations were performed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Woods Hole, MA). I will stress that our research was fully supported by the Ministry of Research and Innovation through successive research projects, funded by the national authority CNCS-UEFISCDI. On the other hand, we are the only team in the world which performed such pioneering studies over one decade.
The article published by Nature Plants received an unusual level of media attention and has a very high altimetric score. The release of our paper was disclosed by Sarah Hausman, Communications and Press Officer of the Nature Publishing Group, on June 4, 2018, when the article was made available to media outlets under embargo conditions until June 11, the official date of online publishing. Starting June 5, I have received tens of requests per day from media outlets/press agencies worldwide. Science reporters were asking for interviews and discussions on the paper’s topic via telephone, WhatsApp, skype, or email. These demands have not ceased even after 50 days, becoming more complex and pertaining contributions to documentaries and books on our research topic.
On June 19, the same Sarah Hausman sent me an email in which she outlined the exceptional media attention generated by our study. Here I reiterate the original version:
<<Dear Dr. Patrut,
Hope this finds you well.
I wanted to send you an email regarding the fantastic media coverage of your baobab paper.
Your research was the subject of 1058 articles, with stories from BBC, CNN, Guardian, the Times, Independent, Daily Mail, AFP, Deutsche Welle, USA Today, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic, Newsweek, New Scientist, Science, National Geographic, IFL Science, Mashable, Boing Boing, Earther, Business Insider, among others.
Coverage also appeared in New York Times online and in today’s print NYT Science Times section.
All the best,
Communications and Press Officer, Nature Research
On July 22, the article had an altimetric score of 2,269, which reflects the public interest and attention. By this high score, our article earned the first place out of all 705 articles published by Nature Plants and occupies the 18th place out of 211,001 articles published in important scientific journals that were rated numerically.
These were very exciting news. First, because all 2,269 mentions of our article by famous press releases, newspapers, weeklies, magazines, TV stations etc. were disseminated all over the 6 continents, and explicitly mentioned “Babeş-Bolyai” University and Romania. Second, this paper also represents a reward for the efforts of our scientific team. We often had to carry out investigations by ourselves/on our own and in difficult conditions, in remote places, very difficult to access, where we worked under extreme meteorological conditions.
- Question Daniel David: What are the academic plans for the future?
In September 2018, membres of our research team will undertake a field trip to India for investigating and sampling for radiocarbon dating some remarkable trees, such as two sacred baobabs and a huge banyan. This activity will take place in collaboration with the Biological Survey of India and the National Biodiversity Authority. Shortly thereafter, a trip to Madagascar is scheduled for collecting samples from the second largest Grandidier baobab that recently collapsed. In the meantime, we will continue to study monumental trees of Europe, including Romania.
Next year, we intend to extend our research on the other three species of large Malagasy baobabs as well as on the Australian baobab. We will focus more on the second part of our research project, namely the climate study. Thus, the radiocarbon dating of several segments of wood samples collected from monumental angiosperm trees is the prerequisite for establishing an age map for the investigated specimen. Subsequently, after determining the age model of the tree, the wood segments are investigated by stable isotope analysis, mainly carbon and oxygen isotopes. The obtained results offer significant information about the climate evolution in the area over the past 1,000-1,500 years. This is of high importance, especially for the African regions, where, as a result of the lack of gymnosperms and suitable paleoenvironmental sites, climate records are scarce.
- Question Daniel David: Why did you choose UBB?
I grew up on the corridors, in the offices and classrooms of UBB, frequently accompanying my parents, who were both professors at this university. Many close relatives of mine were professors, at the Faculty of Language and Literature. I was raised almost exclusively in an academic environment, surrounded by outstanding personalities from UBB. My parents could not even fathom me not pursuing academic career. Thus, UBB was a natural choice, even if my decision for chemistry was last minute. My father always wanted me to become an university professor, a status which, in its traditional views represented the peak of personal and professional fulfillment. I rejoice in granting his wish. In fact, I always considered UBB a second home.
- Question Daniel David: Please share a message for the UBB community.
UBB is quite different from the academic community I met so far. The traditional professor was an encyclopedic spirit, an educator and an erudite scholar, who built his own ivory tower. He was almost exclusively attached to his work place, colleagues and, particularly, to his students and Ph.D. students, to whom he wanted to share not just general and specific knowledge, but real values of enlightenment complementary to the modern man’s educations.
Today we live in a postmodern, postindustrial, eclectic world, in an advanced process of globalization. UBB has changed by adapting to the new times and challenges. Its professors are engaged in international scientific exchanges, they are invited to teach at universities in developed countries and to participate in multinational research projects. Bachelor, Master and PhD students also partake in various European programs at prestigious universities, where educational or research internships are offered. Our students are active players at international conferences and establish direct connections with scientists from other countries. Such exchanges for students and the academic staff are interchangeable and international representatives of academic communities visit UBB, either for educational purposes, research internships, or to share their knowledge and experience as guest professors. Thus, UBB is no longer the romantic hearth of the fortress, but a powerful international educational and scientific center, part of a global network.
However, I wish to present a few personal remarks for the academic/scientific community of UBB and Romania, acknowledging that it represents the largest cluster of elite and intellectual values.
First and foremost, the place, role and significance of the teacher/educator and, particularly of the university professor in our society has drastically diminished. One possible reason is the income level of the educators, and their rather modest pensions. Paradoxically, after 30 years of practicing democracy, the state’s law enforcement institutions are preferred, in many instances with the approval of intellectuals and the support of the young generation.
Secondly, even though education was declared a priority area, the funds for it and support for research are far from the 6% and 1% of the GDP (gross domestic product), respectively, stipulated by the law. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to sustain education performance and competitive research at the international level. Therefore, we will continue exporting brilliant minds and high values into more developed countries.
Thirdly, we live in a way too pragmatic society, a consumer society, focused on entertainment, amusement and showbiz, all these replacing the true values with false values and lack of value. The only generally accepted value is money and rich people have become the model and the icon of dreams. This is one of the main causes of the cultural mediocrity and scientific mediocrity, widespread in modern days.
Fourthly, we are directed and led by rather modest people, often non-values or impostors, who replaced authentic values and results are accordingly.
Finally, every time I get close to Romania, returning from my frequent world travels, I can but sense an increase in the dominant feeling of adversity, bitterness and lack of hope. Over the past years, the Romanian society has become more fragmented and excessively hostile, especially under the influence of certain external and internal reasons and manipulation. In the anniversary year of the centenary of our Great Union, more tolerance, dialogue attempts an even understanding would be expected.
In my view, the UBB community as well as the academic community of Romania should reflect more upon these facets and, mostly, upon its status and true role in the society.