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30 October 2020 | Story Leonie Bolleurs

The Department of Science and Technology has extended two of the National Research Foundation’s SARChI research chairs at the University of the Free State (UFS). 

The Research Chair in Diseases and Quality of Field Crops, together with the Research Chair in Vector-borne and Zoonotic Pathogens, have both been extended for another five years. 

Prof Maryke Labuschagne, currently Professor of Plant Breeding in the Department of Plant Sciences, is leading the chair on Diseases and Quality of Field Crops.

The Chair on Vector-borne and Zoonotic Pathogens is headed by Prof Felicity Burt from the Division of Virology in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Prof Corli Witthuhn, Vice-Rector: Research, says it was the hard work and commitment of Profs Labuschagne and Burt that resulted in the extension of the SARChI research chairs. “They have excelled in terms of student supervision and publications in high-impact international journals.  They also serve as mentors for young academics, postdoctoral fellows, and colleagues through their passion for their different fields of interest.”

Prof Witthuhn believes that this extension of the two SARChI chairs speaks of the progress that the UFS has made in terms of developing itself as a research-led university. “We are proud of the two senior academics for their supervision, mentorship, and leadership and their contribution to building our reputation,” she says. 

Diseases and Quality of Field Crops

The focus of the research chair in Diseases and Quality of Field Crops is on advancing food security and nutrition in Africa and contributing to poverty reduction and achieving sustainability goals. 

Prof Labuschagne says despite recent advances, the headlines regarding hunger and food security remain alarming: one in nine people on earth will go to bed hungry every night. Globally, 800 million people do not have enough to eat to be healthy, and a third of all deaths among children under five in developing countries are linked to undernourishment. 

She believes the uniqueness and strength of the research chair lies in a two-pronged approach, namely the breeding of cereal crops for resistance to fungal diseases, and improving the quality of crops for processing and consumption, thus making an impact on food security in South Africa and the rest of Africa through this collaborative effort. 

She is confident that the extension of the research chair will allow them to continue and to expand their research, “which has built up a lot of momentum”.

Besides the 12 PhD and 8 MSc degrees they delivered in the first five years, they also contributed significant research outputs and cultivar releases. She adds that they would like to expand on the significant international collaboration they have established. 

Vector-borne and Zoonotic Pathogens

According to Prof Burt, the SARChI chair in Vector-borne and Zoonotic Pathogens builds on existing research strengths at the UFS and aims to contribute towards identifying and investigating medically significant arboviruses and zoonotic viruses in the country.
 
“To date, the research chair has facilitated progress towards establishing serosurveillance studies for various vector-borne viruses, specifically Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever virus, a tick-borne and zoonotic virus that causes severe disease with fatalities.”

The team of researchers operating within this research chair is currently also performing studies to determine the seroprevalence of severe acute respiratory coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in the Free State.

Prof Burt has always taken the importance of community engagement into account, and with the current pandemic, she believes that it is now more important than ever to increase public awareness of zoonotic diseases.

She emphasises that the majority of new and emerging viruses are zoonotic in origin and that the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic highlights the impact of an emerging zoonotic pathogen on society. Therefore, she feels that it is important to build capacity in this field and to focus research efforts on identifying and understanding where these pathogens cycle in nature, the potential for spill-over to humans, and what the drivers are for the emergence of these pathogens.

Prof Burt trusts that the renewal of the research chair will allow them to take advantage of the new biosafety laboratory that the UFS has invested in. “This will permit us to research pathogens that were previously excluded from our programme due to biosafety considerations.  The chair will furthermore contribute towards enhancing, strengthening, and developing research and knowledge in the field of epidemiology and pathogenesis of vector-borne and zoonotic viruses,” she says. 

News Archive

Nobel Laureate for Chemistry to visit UFS
2017-10-28

Description: Prof Levitt read more Tags: Prof Levitt read more

Prof Michael Levitt will be hosted by the UFS from
14 to 16 November 2017, where he will present the
first lecture in the Vice-Chancellor’s
Prestige Lecture Series.
Photo: Supplied

It is a great honour for the University of the Free State (UFS) to host Prof Michael Levitt, recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, which he shares with Marti Karplus and Arieh Warshel.

The trio received the Nobel Prize for their development of multiscale models used for complex chemical systems. “Being awarded the Nobel Prize is a unique and marvellous experience that no one can prepare for or could in any way know what to except,” said Prof Levitt during his 2013 Nobel Lecture at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

First lecture in Vice-Chancellor’s lecture series

The South African-born Nobel Laureate and Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) Visiting Scholar will present the first lecture, Birth and Future of Multiscale Modelling of Macromolecules, in the Vice-Chancellors Prestige Lecture Series at the UFS on 14 November 2017. Prof Levitt is well-known for developing approaches which predict macromolecular structures.

He is one of many distinguished academics invited annually by ASSAf to deliver lectures as part of the Distinguished Visiting Scholars’ Programme, presented by ASSAf at universities across the country.

Pioneer in research of molecular dynamics

Prof Levitt is a biophysicist and a professor of Biology at Stanford University. He was one of the earliest researchers to conduct research on molecular dynamics stimulations of DNA and proteins. “My post-prize ambitions are twofold and probably inconsistent: (1) Work single-mindedly as I did in the mid-1970s on hard problems, and (2) Help today’s young scientists gain the recognition and independence which my generation enjoyed,” said Prof Levitt.

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