Two University of Pretoria (UP) academics have excelled in two programmes that form part of the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science awards, which support young female scientists and reward scientific excellence.
Postdoctoral research fellow, Dr Ezette du Rand of UP’s Department of Zoology and Entomology won the Postdoctoral category in the L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science South African National Young Talents Programme 2021, while Agil Katumanyane, a PhD student at UP’s Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI), received the Women in Science award for Sub-Saharan Africa Young Talents.
The Foundation L’Oréal and UNESCO have worked together for more than 20 years to help empower more women scientists to achieve scientific excellence and participate equally in solving the challenges facing humanity. Each year, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programmes support more than 250 talented young women researchers. Through its 52 regional and national programmes, the Foundation L’Oréal and UNESCO support them at a crucial period in their careers, during their thesis or post-doctoral studies.
Dr Du Rand’s research focuses on honeybees, more specifically on the tiny molecules in the male bee’s seminal fluid (prostate fluid that helps transport sperm). One third of global agricultural crops rely on honeybees for pollination; Dr Du Rand’s research forms part of the global goal to ensure that honeybee populations are tolerant against parasites and diseases.
A honeybee colony’s tolerance depends on its genetic diversity, which is determined by the reproductive cycle in the colony. “We know very little about the molecules and the molecular-level mechanisms that govern the mating behaviour in honeybees,” Dr Du Rand explains. “My study is zooming in on the molecules in the male’s seminal fluid and their role in mating behaviour. By understanding the role of these molecular-level mechanisms, bee breeding practices can be improved, leading to healthier colonies that provide higher quality pollination services for both our natural ecosystem and global agriculture.”
From the age of 18, Dr Du Rand knew that she loved science, but had no idea that she would find herself working in the biochemistry field. “As a student, I had rather narrow ideas about career paths in science, but I continued studying and followed the advice of career advisors. It was only after I had completed my honours degree that I started experiencing the freedom of thought that science brings.”
Dr Du Rand will receive a research grant of R160 000 and plans to use it to visit the lab of Professor Boris Baer, at the Centre for Integrated Bee Research in California, US, to learn the techniques that they have fine-tuned for working with honeybee seminal fluid. These techniques are key to the successful completion of her project.
She also intends to use the award and the recognition of her work as a female scientist as a platform to inspire other young women to achieve their dreams and make world-changing scientific discoveries.
Agil Katumanyane, a PhD student from Uganda who won the regional sub-Saharan award, specialises in agricultural entomology and nematology. She recently defended her PhD project at
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FABI. “My research focused on the potential for the biological control of white grubs in South Africa, using locally isolated entomopathogenic nematodes [EPNs] – a group of nematodes also known as roundworms that cause the death of insects,” she explains.
“White grubs are the major insect pests of sugar cane and are important establishment pests in wattle plantations in South Africa and Eswatini. I am looking at the mortality potential of different nematodes towards the different species of the most dominant white grubs in South Africa. Specific aspects that have been evaluated include the mortality potential of the nematodes, the lethal dosages required and the defence mechanisms that the white grubs have against the nematodes.”
She says using EPNs to control insect pests will help to reduce the use of pesticides, which will positively contribute to environmental conservation. “I have also described a new EPN from South Africa, which is the 12th one to be described from the country,” she said, adding that South African species make up to 12% of the described world species of the genus Steinernema, which highlights the diversity of EPNs in South Africa.
Katumanyane’s interest in science began at an early age. Having been curious about everything on the subsistence farm that she grew up on, her father encouraged her to study science to find answers to all her questions.
“I am humbled to receive this award,” she says. “It does not only help to highlight the research that I am doing and its importance, but I believe it will also encourage other young women to get involved in science.”
Katumanyane urges young female scientists to believe in themselves, seek good mentors and have the confidence to participate in opportunities that present themselves. She intends to use part of her award to mentor young women in science. She also hopes to visit other laboratories that specialise in biological control of insect pests, both in Africa and abroad, to gain more knowledge which she can bring back to improve current research in entomopathogenic nematodes at UP.