Rich rewards for five female researchers

Time of article published Jul 1, 2011

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Staff Reporter

FIVE female scientists, from Stellenbosch University and UCT, are among a group of 10 “inspiring women scientists” who have been honoured with 2011 L’Oréal-Unesco Regional Fellowships For Women in Science.

The ceremony took place in Joburg last night.

The L’Oréal Corporate Foundation created the For Women in Science partnership with Unesco in 1998, and since then more than 1 000 women scientists across the world have received awards or support in pursuing their careers, through various fellowship programmes.

Each of last night’s winners receive R180 000 towards the completion of their PhDs in the fields of microbiology, environmental science, medical virology, chemistry and agriculture.

The local recipients are:

lDalene de Swardt, 31, is doing her PhD in medical virology at Stellenbosch University.

She said her research, in the field of HIV/Aids, focused on a specific immune cell, the dendritic cell.

Swardt explained that the cells contributed towards the activation of the immune system, and that she was investigating what happened to these cells in people with HIV.

She was developing a natural agent that she hoped would block HIV from entering healthy cells, while also curbing the activation status of the HIV virus “so that it (the agent) can attack and clear out the infection”.

l Jeanne de Waal, 27, who is doing her PhD in agricultural sciences, also at Stellenbosch.

De Waal said she grew up in Pretoria and had to swop her high heels for gumboots when she began her studies, “but it is quite fun being a girl in the field of agriculture”.

Receiving the award was a great honour, she said, adding that it was a wonderful reward for her hard work and long hours spent working on her PhD.

De Waal is looking at environmentally friendly pest management practices, and is developing a biological pest control agent (a worm) to effectively control pests on apples and pears.

She said that biological control agents were already commercialised in parts of Europe and the US, but not in South Africa.

“We want to develop agents that are endemic to South Africa because insects are building up resistance to antibiotics and pest control.”

De Waal added that the demand for organic and sustainably produced food had also helped drive the process towards more environmentally friendly pest control management.

l Kim Trollope, 34, is focusing on yeast microbiology for her PhD. Her research focuses on producing an enzyme used for the production of sweeteners from cane sugar (sucrose).

The sweeteners are lower in calories and safe for use by diabetics. Trollope explained that her PhD would supplement existing work being done in this regard, by potentially providing an understanding of how the enzyme functioned, and by producing a novel enzyme with improved properties.

All three said they would use the money to attend international conferences which were important for networking with others in their field.

l The other two fellowship recipients, Olutayo K Boyinbode, 37, from Nigeria, and Rachel Muigai, from Kenya, both live in Cape Town and are studying at UCT.

Boyinbode is completing her PhD in computer science.

Muigai’s PhD is focusing on the sustainability of concrete structures.

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