11 February 2020 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Leonie Bolleurs
Prof Liesl van As
Prof Liesl van As, Academic Head of the Department of Zoology and Entomology, is passionate about equal rights for parasites.

As a research-led institution, the university has 1 600 female researchers (2019 statistics), with 63 boasting ratings from the National Research Foundation (NRF). Four of the UFS SARChI Research Chairs are also headed by women. 

One of the scientists at the University of the Free State (UFS) who gets excited about research is Prof Liesl van As, Academic Head of the Department of Zoology and Entomology

She was part of the UFS team that established Africa’s largest digital laboratory, equipped with 227 microscopes, to ensure that undergraduate students from Zoology and Entomology, as well as Plant Sciences (Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences), have access to hi-tech equipment for a cutting-edge teaching experience.

The good and the bad 

But she also has a passion for her own research – that of fish parasites. Her most recent research work is about the biodiversity of fish parasites in natural river systems, with a focus on the Orange River and its tributaries, as well as the Okavango River and Delta in Botswana.

A few years ago, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries expanded their mandate for fisheries management by adding inland fisheries and aquaculture to their list of responsibilities. 

Prof Van As believes her research will add value to this process. “If we are going to expand inland fisheries, we need to expand our knowledge of what is happening in natural systems. It is important that we know and understand what potential problems might arise in aquaculture conditions.”

Equal rights for parasites

“We also need to understand that not all so-called parasites are bad, some have co-evolved with their hosts and they are part of our overall biodiversity. If the hosts are going extinct, so does this amazing spectrum of symbionts,” says Prof Van As, who is enthusiastic about promoting ‘equal rights for parasites’ (Wilson, 1995). 

When it comes to the future of women in research, Prof Van As – inspired by life itself, believes the possibilities are endless. “If you can dream it, you can do it. Ex Africa Semper Aliquid Novi (out of Africa there is always something new),” she states. 

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