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Two SU researchers receive FLAIR fellowships
Author: Rozanne Engel and Engela Duvenage
Published: 25/04/2019

​​​​​​Dr Margreth Tadie, a lecturer in the Process Engineering Department and Dr Debra Rossouw, a biotechnologist at the Stellenbosch University's Institute for Wine Biotechnology, are two of 30 scientists in Africa to have been selected for the FLAIR (Future Leaders – African Independent Research) research fellowships. They were part of a competitive pool of 700 applicants across the continent.

 FLAIR is a two-year programme of The African Academy of Sciences (AAS) and the Royal Society, with support from the United Kingdom's Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), and is designed to help talented early-career researchers whose science is focused on the needs of the continent, establish independent careers at African institutions and ultimately, their own research groups. Each scientist receives £300,000 (R5 472 003) over the two-year fellowship to help them with independent research.

Dr Margreth Tadie

In 2017, Statistics South Africa reported that the mining industry is slowly declining on a yearly basis. However, the mass amount of waste left behind continues to have a huge environmental impact on the mining communities in South Africa, and the rest of Africa.

For Dr Tadie doing research on mining waste is not just motivated by her academic aspirations but is fuelled by her deep personal experiences of growing up on the dusty mines in her home country of Zimbabwe.

“In many ways mining is who I am, I grew up in this and in many ways the mine for the people who live within mining communities is their life. Your father works in the mine, you work in the mine, your children work in the mine and no matter where you are whether you are the lowest or highest paid, the mine becomes you. Although I am in academia now and I'm not physically on the mine I still identify with the mine and hope that my research can help change mining policies within Africa."

“It's such an honour to get this fellowship from them and really what they are about is supporting African research and supporting excellent researchers within Africa to be able to become leaders within their research field. I'm passionate about mineral resources in Africa and I'm passionate about what they can do for the continent. There is such incredible wealth in Africa, yet when you look at Africa, we are one of the poorest continents in the world and I'm not happy with that. My heart is really into looking at what we can do better with our resources for our continent and our people."

Tadie's father has been working on mines for over forty years and says being exposed to that environment all her life has had a huge impact on her motivation to help change the negative effects of the industry.

“I grew up next to big heaps of mining waste most of my life and seeing all the dust, that's formed from that fine material, living in landscapes where the vegetation has been deteriorated, because of the mining activities, stayed with me. There are really significant impacts that are negative, that come from mining, which can be prevented; because a lot of it is policy and technical strategy."

Tadie's research project will specifically look at the waste left behind from gold mines in South Africa and develop a framework strategy that looks at sustainable ways to extract minerals so less waste is created in the process. She hopes that this framework strategy will be applied to different sites and eventually influence policy change within the mining industry.

“There are tons of waste heaps that are a legacy of that success in gold mining and those waste heaps are taking up land and are creating pollution. The environmental impact is quite significant and this project is aimed at finding ways and developing a process, which will deal with this waste."

Tadie says she also recognises the significant impact this fellowship will have on her teaching at SU and hopefully inspiring other young engineers in Africa.

“I am very conscious of being in the minority within the mining industry, but I'm so open to that challenge because we need more role-models. Where women have paved the way in other industries, I am very conscious of the fact that I have the opportunity to be that for those who are coming up behind me. We do need more women who are brave enough to go in and are brave enough to do cutting edge research, to be brave enough to be on the mines and do good work. I hope to impart that heart for responsible mining and responsible engineering."

Dr  Debra Rossouw

Dr Rossouw will receive 300 000 UK pounds over the next two years towards her research endeavours and will be able to build lasting connections and international collaborations with peers across Africa. She will also benefit from mentoring and skills development initiatives run by the African Academy of Sciences​ (AAS.

Dr Rossouw does research as part of the endeavours of Stellenbosch University's Institute for Wine Biotechnology, the only unit of its kind in Africa. Members of this multi-disciplinary institute research anything from plants (such as grapevine and tobacco) to yeasts, bacteria and microalgae.

Dr Rossouw studies how different species of yeasts interact with one another, or with bacteria and algae, and how these could be used in industrial processes.

Such micro-organisms are typically between 1 and 6 thousandths of a millimetre (or 1-6 micrometres) in diameter. Through her research, Dr Rossouw focusses on one extremely small but significant aspect of these micro-organisms – their cell walls. She studies the genes and proteins that control and influence how these structures function. To do so, she uses a variety of techniques from traditional molecular biology methods and microscopy to computational simulations and next-generation sequencing technologies.

Dr Rossouw was the first to publish a paper on a topic called co-aggregation (or co-flocculation). This phenomenon happens when the cell walls of different species of yeast adhere or “glue" to each other in very species-specific patterns. She found out that in some cases, these interactions influence the very survival (or not) of the species involved.

“One would be able to use these interactions for biocontrol purposes or, alternatively, to 'build' ecosystems to improve fermentation technology or wastewater bioremediation measures," she comments on the future relevance of her work.

Dr Rossouw hopes her findings will benefit commercial fermentation practices and improve the environmental sustainability of the wine sector.

“Aside from the practical applications, the research I am embarking on will shed light on how physical interactions between different species may have shaped the evolution of micro-organisms in natural ecosystems in which numerous species occur together," she adds.

Dr Rossouw has an excellent academic track record and is the recipient of numerous South African research fellowships over the past decade. She obtained a PhD in Wine Biotechnology from Stellenbosch University in 2009. She received all of her qualifications in plant biotechnology cum laude from Stellenbosch University, starting with a BSc in Biotechnology in 2003.

Dr Rossouw grew up in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, and matriculated from Carter High School in 2000. She lives outside Paarl, and is an avid mountain biker and trail runner.

The need for programmes such as FLAIR:

FLAIR is one of six postdoctoral programmes being implemented through the African Academy of Sciences.

“We recognise that well-planned postdoctoral programmes are critical in promoting scientific and research excellence and leadership in Africa," says Professor Felix Dapare Dakora, President of the African Academy of Sciences. “We want to be catalytic in inspiring African institutions to critically think about the role of and defining postdoctoral programmes that suit their needs and purpose and can be instrumental in driving socio-economic development on the continent."

​“The scientists selected as FLAIR grantees represent the next generation of leading African scientists, and we are incredibly proud to be part of a programme that is investing in them at such a crucial point in their careers," says Professor Richard Catlow, Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society.Fostering science and innovation for social benefit and prosperity is key to the wellbeing of any society, and investing in Africa's scientific talent holds the greatest potential to tackle global challenges and improve quality of life."


Photo captions:

Wine biotechnologist Dr Debra Rossouw in her laboratory in the Stellenbosch University Department of Viticulture and Oenology. Photo: Engela Duvenage

Dr Margreth Tadie at the Engineering Building