11 February 2022 | Story Leonie Bolleurs and Nonsindiso Qwabe | Photo Supplied
The superpowers of women scientists at the UFS

The University of the Free State (UFS) has implemented several interventions to increase the diversity of its researchers, including its women scientists. Actions have paid off and resulted in an increase in the percentage of rated female researchers, from 27% in 2016 to 34% in 2021.

The university is also host to a number of science leaders in the six National Research Foundation (NRF)-funded South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI). Four of these research chairs are held by women. These are the research chairs in Vector-borne and Zoonotic Pathogens; Disease Resistance and Quality in Field Crops; Higher Education and Human Development; and Pathogenic Yeasts.

Health, medicine, and food sustainability are but three examples of areas in society where the women of the UFS is playing a critical role in science today.

In celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science instituted by the United Nations General Assembly on 22 December 2015, the UFS is honouring its women scientists.

The science of science expos

One of the researchers at the UFS who is using science to make a difference in the lives of learners in our country, is Dr Angela Stott, Researcher and Teacher Educator in the Division of Social Responsibilities Projects (SRP) on the UFS South Campus. Together with colleagues in the SRP, she is involved in numerous Maths and Science outreach interventions to teachers and learners.

Science becomes fun for learners through the different initiatives created by Dr Stott and her colleagues. These include the online Learn Science programme (a brainchild of Dr Stott), using tablets donated by ioT.nxt, and the Creative Clubs intervention started by Dr Joleen Hamilton, a colleague of Dr Stott. In the latter, learners can take part in a MathArt competition and coding sessions.

In this year’s Creative Clubs projects, 100 Grade 9 learners from township schools will be mentored to prepare science fair projects for participation in the Expo for Young Scientists.

But why all this hard work for an expo? For these learners, the expo is more than just a public platform to showcase excellence. According to Dr Stott, learners in South African township schools tend not to be stimulated in extracurricular programmes, since teaching in these contexts is typically restricted to exam training.

However, her research has shown that higher-achieving learners from contexts of poverty respond well to such programmes and gain valuable knowledge, skills, and values from them. “This year, 100 higher-achieving Grade 9 learners from township schools will benefit from this programme, and next year another 100,” she says.

She adds that literature on this subject points to the need for structure, while also supporting learners’ development of autonomy when mentoring a learner to produce a science fair project. Dr Stott explains that the online programme around which this year’s intervention is built, has been created in a manner informed by literature on what is most likely to work. “By us researching the process, we will improve our understanding of how to maximise the benefits and mitigate the weaknesses that learners from poverty gain from such participation. This knowledge could help improve the effectiveness of such programmes throughout the country, and in other parts of the world where similar conditions apply,” she says.

Fighting for stronger immune systems

An international student from Zimbabwe, Nakai Matongera, a PhD graduate in Plant Breeding in the Department of Plant Sciences on the Bloemfontein Campus, is playing a key role in food sustainability in Africa with her research. She is a maize breeder working at the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre (SIRDC) in Harare, Zimbabwe.

The focus of her PhD thesis is on the development of high-yielding and nutrient-dense maize varieties enriched with provitamin A, zinc, and essential amino acids such as lysine and tryptophan.

“With my research, I aimed to develop zinc-enhanced maize varieties that have great potential to reduce zinc deficiency in maize-based developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa,” she says.

Matongera explains that zinc-enhanced hybrids were developed by crossing introduced zinc donors and locally adapted maize inbred lines from three nutritional categories (normal, provitamin A, and quality protein maize (QPM). The hybrids were evaluated for both agronomic and nutritional performance under optimum drought and low nitrogen conditions.

“Results indicated that zinc-enhanced QPM hybrids accumulated high zinc under all growing conditions. However, the zinc-enhanced normal hybrids had the highest yield potential, implying dilution effects.”

“I find my research rewarding, because this biofortification strategy to combat micronutrient deficiency is cost-effective and has wide coverage and sustainability compared to other strategies such as clinical supplementation and food fortification,” says Matongera.

The outcomes of her research will one day, when it is implemented, change the lives of thousands of children in Africa who are suffering from zinc and iron deficiency. The shortage of zinc and iron in their diets affects their cognitive development as well as their immune systems, making them susceptible to a number of illnesses, including diarrhoea.

According to Prof Maryke Labuschagne, Nakai’s supervisor for her PhD study, this research will have a practical impact in Africa, as it will contribute towards the nutritional value of food.

Saving generations of humans and animals

When she could not pursue her childhood dream of becoming a vet, Dr Nthatisi Nyembe forged a new path in zoology, and today she is working in the Department of Zoology and Entomology on the UFS Qwaqwa Campus, where she focuses on veterinary parasitology.

Dr Nyembe’s research looks at the treatment and epidemiology of parasitic diseases in animals and humans, because – as she says – if animals are healthy, then humans are healthy. She says the ripple effect could save generations to come. “I want to be remembered for creating a drug that will make life easier for animals, because if animals are healthy, then the food we consume will also be healthy,” she says.

Dr Nyembe completed her studies on the Qwaqwa Campus from undergraduate to master’s level, specialising in Zoology. She was then awarded a scholarship to complete her PhD studies in Japan, where she spent four years looking into creating compounds that can treat and prevent unwanted parasites in animals, with a specific focus on mice.

“If I can get to a point where I can find one compound that has various benefits on multiple micro-organisms, then I will be happy”, she says.

While acknowledging the wide gender gap that still persists in her field of science, Nyembe says it should not hinder young girls who are interested in pursuing all levels of science.

“Society still looks down on girls and women, especially in Africa. If I go to a farmer as a woman and try to advise them about animal health, very few of them are receptive. However, the majority believe that I need to come with a man in order to be taken seriously. I just want to tell young aspiring female scientists that it is possible.”

“Whatever you put your mind to, you can pull through and achieve. Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated.”

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