11 February 2024 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo SUPPLIED
Dr Gladys Belle
Dr Gladys Belle is passionate about water research and human health. Her interest in water and health-related research grew due to the health crisis caused by human exposure to contaminated water sources in South Africa.

Beyond the destruction caused by the Coronavirus during the COVID-19 pandemic, it continues to impact not only the lives of many people but also the environment.

Dr Gladys Belle, a postdoctoral researcher in the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State (UFS), is currently focusing her research on the risk assessment of pharmaceuticals of emerging concern in water resources, specifically concerning human health and aquatic ecosystems. She explains that her research investigates the occurrence, fate, and behaviour of four drugs used during COVID-19 and assesses the risk these drugs pose to human health and the aquatic ecosystem within the Orange-Senqu River Basin.

“I am passionate about water research and more passionate about human health. My interest in water and health-related research grew due to the health crisis caused by human exposure to contaminated water sources in South Africa,” she states.

Dr Belle adds that she wants to raise awareness and shape the behaviour of local communities in South Africa regarding safe disposal methods. Through programmes such as take-back initiatives, the research seeks to reduce the impact of pharmaceuticals on water resources. She states, “My research will also influence the implementation of various preventive measures, including policies regulating the disposal of drugs into the environment. This research may serve as the basis for better sanitation solutions within communities and improving wastewater treatment processes in the country.”

Focusing on women scientists such as Dr Belle, the UFS will be celebrating the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February, commemorating women in the field of science and encouraging girls to pursue careers in this field.

A passion for academia and science

From a young age, Dr Belle was deeply enthusiastic about academia, particularly in the field of science. She studied Environmental Sciences at a university in Cameroon, earning her BSc in 2003. Taking a ten-year break, she focused on being a mum and also worked as Biology teacher in Lesotho.

Despite staying away from the university for an extended period, Dr Belle never let go of her passion and vision to one day become a renowned researcher and academic. In 2012, she enrolled for her honours degree in Environmental Health, followed by her master's in 2013, which she passed with distinction. Immediately after, she enrolled for a PhD and successfully graduated in 2021.

She mentions that her PhD journey came with various challenges, balancing responsibilities as a part-time lecturer, a mother, and a wife while pursuing her studies. “Regardless of all those challenges, I never gave up. Instead, they kept me motivated to get going,” she says.

The same year that she obtained her PhD, Dr Belle joined the university as a postdoctoral researcher. “Being a researcher at the UFS has allowed me to advance my research career and provided a platform for me to meet and learn from the gurus in my field,” she comments. Dr Belle considers Prof Paul Oberholster, the Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and her current supervisor, as a true mentor. He not only teaches her the skill of hard work, but he also encourages her to aim high in research. She also expresses great appreciation to the Directorate of Research Development for its support during her research journey, providing her with access to tools and resources to effectively pursue her work as researcher.

As postdoctoral researcher, Dr Belle expanded her research expertise by publishing in peer-reviewed journals and gaining experience in writing grants and managing projects. In 2023, she received two prestigious research grants. In the Water Research Commission grant, she is leading a team of six national and international experts in risk assessment of emerging contaminants in water resources.

Furthermore, Dr Belle received the Innovation Postdoctoral Fellowship award for 2023 from the National Research Foundation (NRF). She explains that the project focuses on investigating sources, pathways, occurrences, and potential risks of pharmaceuticals of emerging concern on potential receptors in water resources. “This study targets the different wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) in Mangaung, as these plants pose a potential risk of introducing pharmaceuticals into water systems,” she remarks.

Strengthening capacity development

Focusing on understanding the risks of new pollutants in water resources, Dr Belle is well on her way to becoming one of the leading researchers in water and health, a long-standing aspiration of hers. “I see myself working with top researchers in my field, both nationally and internationally, to be part of important international research projects, including working with the European Union and the United Nations,” she says.

In addition to making an impact on the international stage and collaborating with experts in her field, she also aims to transfer and share her skills to the postgraduate students working with her, thereby strengthening their development.

For girls and young women aspiring to embark on a journey in any field of science, her message is that it is possible. “Whatever career path you wish to pursue in sciences, put your mind to it and be passionate about what you do; ultimately, you will testify that ‘it is possible’,” Dr Belle concludes. 

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