Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
SU’s FLAIR Fellows partner with UK experts
Author: Engela Duvenage
Published: 23/03/2020

Stellenbosch University (SU) biotechnologist Dr Debra Rossouw and process engineer Dr Margreth Tadie were both last year announced as among the first fellows to receive FLAIR Fellowships (Future Leaders – African Independent Research). The initiative recognises them as being among Africa's most promising early career researchers. Both have now also received FLAIR Collaboration Grants, which allows them to team up with leading experts in the UK in their fields of study.

The FLAIR Fellowship is an initiative of the African Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, with support from the UK's Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). It helps talented early-career researchers whose work is focused on the needs of the continent to establish independent careers in African institutions. It gives them the opportunity to develop their careers, bolster international networks and to address global challenges.

In all, 14 South Africa-based researchers were among the inaugural 30 FLAIR awardees selected in 2019 from a competitive pool of 700 applicants across the continent. Twenty have now received FLAIR Collaboration Grants.

Biotechnologist Dr Debra Rossouw studies yeasts, bacteria and microalgae and is a member of staff at the SU Institute for Wine Biotechnology. The FLAIR Collaboration Grant allows her to team up with Prof Matthew Goddard from the University of Lincoln. They will work together on an ecologically sustainable project to combat an array of damaging fungal species which amongst others cause food and beverage spoilage as well as other opportunistic fungal infections. They will focus on yeast species that can be used and modified as biocontrol agents s to selectively target or attack harmful fungal species.

Dr Rossouw says that, aside from the standard project expenses, the grant allows for herself and postgraduate students to travel and spend research stays with the UK partner as deemed necessary.

“The greatest benefit perhaps will be the cohesive and robust interchange between the Leeds and Stellenbosch partners' complementary experience base and collective inputs," she adds.

She says Prof Goddard's experience in fungal ecology will be a key to successfully engineer microbial-based consortia for effective biocontrol of harmful yeasts – an increasing global concern.

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 micrometers) 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.

About Dr Margreth Tadie

Dr Margreth Tadie of the SU Department of Process Engineering is seeking solutions for mining pollution. In a project entitled “Implementing Novel Methods for Making Tailings Benign Post Value Recovery Reprocessing", she is partnering with Prof Karen Hudson-Edwards of the University of Exeter.

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 FLAIR 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 specifically looks 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."​

Photo: Stellenbosch University wine biotechnologist Dr Debra Rossouw (left) with colleague Dr Margreth Tadie from the SU Department of Chemical Engineering, at the announcement of the first round of FLAIR grantees in Kenya.