Equal to the best in the world

The recent growth of scientific excellence within historically black universities (HBUs) is being hailed as a remarkable success story. The result of a seven-year collaborative research programme between South Africa and Britain, this growth has taken place in universities that apartheid decreed were to remain inferior forever.

In March 1995 following a visit from then British prime minister, John Major, a Royal Society delegation arrived from London to decide how best the British scientific community could collaborate with South Africa to expand its science base and advance science to their mutual benefit.

The Royal Society/National Research Foundation (NRF) Science, Engineering and Technology Programme that grew out of the society’s visit determined to increase the number and quality of black researchers and lecturers in science and engineering technology, improve access of black staff to British research and research institutions, establish centres of excellence in HBUs with help from British experts, and encourage collaborative research projects between the centres in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

‘Unique was the fact that the collaboration would be conducted as an equal partnership,” recalls Dr Prins Nevhutalu, NRF executive director for research development support. Through the society,

£5,5-million was allocated over the first five years, with the NRF contributing its parallel share of almost R8-million. These funds supported individuals for recurrent costs such as travel and subsistence, conference attendance and field trips.

Successes measured quantitatively after five years, coupled with reports from the review team’s visits to each project, persuaded the society to extend the programme to four projects, two at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and one each at the University of Zululand (Unizul) and the University of the North (Unin), for three more years.

After just five years, at institutions that were never meant to be more than glorified high schools, nor to educate scientists, nor conduct research — and which had suffered decades of academic neglect — four successful research teams had been built, and were contributing work that world-class UK collaborators recognised as valuable additions to their own.

In the first five years, the 2001 evaluation panel reported that, ‘remarkably, a total of 92 obtained honours degrees, 50 master’s and 13 PhDs”. The publications totalled 104, rising to 121 by mid-2003, and ‘participation in local and international conferences, created an intellectual hub in most of the universities. Research capacity provided the necessary foundation for the establishment of a national centre of excellence in each institution.”

The recipe for success lay in combining the ingredients of project leadership, programme model, beneficiaries, institutional backing and Royal Society/NRF support.

Project leaders at home and abroad were committed, motivated, energetic and generous beyond imagination, say beneficiaries in unison. The programme model offered a functioning team at home that, even as it was building the necessary facilities for work to expand, dovetailed visits abroad with the needs of each individual’s project.

The right postgraduates benefited. The HBU route into research often means a financial and educational background too poor for entry to a historically white university: it often coexists with lack of confidence in oneself and — before the Royal Society/NRF programme began to change this — in the home institution.

Mentors and collaborators in both countries gave beneficiaries the care and personal concern of committed professional academics, pressuring them to work beyond their limits, but offering genuine friendship too.

‘In the lab I’m with my family,” said one. ‘I’m pushed hard, then, when I can’t manage another moment, someone’s at my elbow with encouragement.”

Crucial, finally, was the right institutional backing at home, and the right support from the society and the NRF, not just through funding but through commitment

to excellence even as the need for redress and equity was not forgotten. Says NRF vice-president

Dr Gerhard von Gruenewaldt: ‘This programme demonstrates that when we give HBU researchers and teams the right opportunities, all of us can compete and collaborate as equals with the best of the world.”

A key achievement of the programme is that it has demonstrably bridged the divide between capacity building and excellence, says Dr Ben Ngubane, Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. ‘We have an obligation to support development, but we must remember that the end of capacity building must be excellence, for unless we achieve excellence nobody benefits.”

Four key research areas, nanotechnology (the science of minute particles), computer modelling, biotechnology and biodiversity, have burgeoned at three HBUs with support from the partnership. All are nationally important, in fields highlighted by the government’s National Research and Development Strategy of 2002. All attract international attention by helping to answer questions some of the world’s top scientists are asking, and all have huge economic potential.

Materials research at Unizul

‘Our synthesis and characterisation of nanomaterials for possible industrial applications places our team in a leadership position in the country in this rapidly growing field,” says Unizul’s project leader, Professor Gabriel Kolawole, with appreciation for the crucial mentoring and networking role played by his UK counterpart, Professor Paul O’Brien from the University of Manchester.

‘The Royal Society/NRF collaboration offered us a unique opportunity to lay a strong foundation for research and capacity building.” It also, crucially, helped to leverage further funding and support to help sustain momentum.

‘Mintek sponsored our project on nanomaterials based on precious metals; Angloplatinum donated platinum and palladium salts, and in June 3M gave us $10 000, which we will use to upgrade facilities.”

Nanotechnology uses the scale of the nanometre, equal to one millionth of a millimetre. In this range, differences of size become differences of kind. Dr Neerish Revaprasadu, deputy project leader and South Africa’s only formally trained materials chemist, explains that known materials on the nanoscale exhibit unique properties that are potentially useful for various applications, in light-emitting devices, say, or for catalysis.

Materials might become more stable or longer lasting, for example, which can make paint coatings more durable or colour displays brighter and more effective. In medicine, administering drugs that don’t dissolve in water is difficult, but nanoparticles could carry the drug molecules around the body suspended in the blood. South Africa has distinct opportunities for applications of the Unizul work, in areas such as catalysis, energy storage and water treatment.

The team has been making semiconductor nanoparticles using the

so-called ‘top-down” precursor approach in which, says Revaprasadu, ‘you take something big and break it down chemically to produce the nanoparticles that you want”.

‘We’ve concentrated on finding the best compounds to use as precursors and how best to use them,” explains Revaprasadu. ‘We’ve been fine-tuning our method, and also investigating ways to achieve high yields while maintaining high quality and low cost, because demand for quality will increase worldwide in the next decade, and our project addresses the need for simple, low-cost synthetic routes to nanosized materials.”

The team is also the only group in South Africa to be using these new precursors for the deposition of micron-sized thin films, which are potentially useful in solar cells.

Revaprasadu emphasises the importance of developing a global centre in South Africa for the country to compete internationally: ‘We mustn’t miss out at the early stage in this emerging area, which, globally, has very few experts. Our centre is rare because we offer expertise that is hard to find. Those we train are marketable worldwide — so is the research done by our group.”

Also working towards applications relevant to South Africa’s needs, the team led by Kolawole focuses on coordination chemistry. It is developing a variety of organometallic compounds, some for potential use as inorganic antibiotics, and others for treating chloroquine-resistant malaria. Compounds are also being investigated for possible uses as microelectronic devices, and in treating industrial waste water polluted with heavy metals.

Materials modelling at Unin

Unin now boasts the only centre within South African higher education where computer modelling is conducted on materials for industrial applications, metals in particular. ‘We examine the structure of materials at an atomic level,” explains the centre’s deputy director, Dr Lutz Ackermann, ‘to speed up the process of calculating the strength and other properties of a material.”

Work at the centre, begun and inspired by project leader Professor Phuti Ngoepe, began on materials used in energy storage devices. With the Royal Society/NRF programme came prospects of rapid growth and sustained collaboration with UK project leader Professor Richard Catlow from the Royal Institution of Great Britain and other top UK researchers, and a wider range of materials was introduced, including minerals, other metal alloys and polymers.

Rich in natural mineral resources, South Africa has been insufficiently involved in processing them to add market value. Understanding the properties of platinum-based alloys, therefore, or details of platinum-group metals separation and beneficiation, is essential for increasing the worth of these mineral resources for our national economy.

‘A motor car manufacturer,” explains Ackermann, ‘might want to know at what point a part made from a particular alloy will break when used in a vehicle. Previously you’d create that part, then physically test its strength. Computer modelling can speed up the testing process and cut costs by making predictions based on the material’s atomic structure.

‘We’ve worked on an alloy of two metals, for example magnesium and lithium, with potential in the automotive industry, where they want maximum strength and minimum weight. To see what stress the material can withstand before it breaks, we use as a benchmark the known results of physical experiments on pure lithium, on pure magnesium, and, say, of a 50/50 mix. On that basis we can simulate other proportions of mix in the alloy to test strength for particular uses in vehicles.”

The procedures are high-tech, and sophisticated theoretical methods have advanced to the point where it’s possible to predict reliably the properties of many different materials.

‘We work on battery-related materials such as lithium, used in cellphones; and industries likely to benefit include manufacturing and, in particular, mining,” says Ackermann.

Biotechnology at UWC

Working with living organisms, biotechnology attempts to create products on a commercial scale. The UWC team, nurtured from inception by project leader Professor Jasper Rees, aims to lay the groundwork

for key technologies in protein research, focusing on the roles

that proteins play in the functioning of living cells, and collaborating closely with UK project leader Professor Toni Slabas from Durham University.

‘Proteins,” explains Dr David Pugh, the programme’s deputy project leader, ‘make up the ‘moving parts’ within all living cells: each protein has its function, determined by its unique three-dimensional shape, and each is produced by the cell from the information contained in a single gene.

‘When scientists sequence the genome of a living organism, they tell us the totality of genes encoded in its DNA, and the chemical composition of stretches of DNA that dictate the chemical composition of the proteins. As researchers in structural biology, we apply this information to determine a protein’s shape, using two techniques borrowed from physics: X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance [NMR] spectroscopy.”

The process is complicated, requiring expensive equipment and great skill. The Royal Society/NRF programme provided the infrastructure to prepare the proteins and was responsible for developing the know-how to determine their structures. With the necessary equipment and trained people in place, UWC in partnership with the University of Cape Town (UCT) raised $1-million in 2001 to establish South Africa’s first-ever protein X-ray crystallography facility and to set up a joint UWC/UCT master’s level course to train researchers to use these instruments.

This year the group will publish the structure of the first protein

ever determined in South Africa using NMR. The work, which included setting up the necessary facilities at UWC, will have taken more than three years, but the results could have far-reaching implications. The protein concerned, occurring in plants and humans, is thought to be involved in the process of programmed cell death (apoptosis), a mechanism protecting the body against cancer. ‘If a cell starts to act in an unregulated way,” explains Pugh, ‘surrounding cells will tell it to kill itself. We think that many cancers occur when this suicide mechanism fails.”

In the field of proteomics, the UWC researchers examine the bigger picture of how

proteins operate in living organisms, and try to identify groups of proteins involved in key cellular functions. Structural biology and proteomics are both crucial for developing biotechnology and pharmaceutical research in South Africa.

‘Comparing the proteins produced by cells in a drought-resistant plant like the

resurrection plant with those produced by a more sus-

ceptible garden plant,” explains Pugh, ‘may help to identify the proteins that confer drought-resistance. This kind of knowledge has important implications in

a water-poor country such as ours.”

Addressing the needs of South Africa’s fruit-growers and exporters, other projects have, for instance, investigated disease-resistance genetics in apples. Success involves mastering principles with wide implications in other areas of agriculture and the life sciences.

Biodiversity at UWC

South Africa, and particularly the Western Cape, forms a biodiversity hotspot under threat from exploitation, urbanisation and the introduction of alien species. UWC’s Strategic Centre for Southern African and Sub-Saharan African Biodiversity examines regional biodiversity patterns and their processes, and develops technologies to help assess biodiversity and the health of the environment.

Scientific efforts concentrate on neglected organisms, especially tortoises, amphibians (frogs and toads) and selected marine invertebrates. All these act as indicators of environmental health.

‘Home of the world’s greatest diversity of land tortoises,” says programme leader Professor Mark Gibbons, ‘South Africa has a global responsibility to ensure that they are managed appropriately.” In the past, field researchers assessing tortoise reproduction often used portable X-ray machines, but these are only useful for collecting information about eggs once they’re at the shell stage within the animal.

Now UWC research has helped to refine innovative ultra-sound techniques, with international benchmarks and standards, for assessing very quickly the reproductive rates and condition of field populations. Unlike X-rays, ultra-sound can detect changes in soft tissues, so we can track the development of a tortoise egg far earlier — even when it’s still in the ovary.

Some organisms warrant attention for their part in the functioning of ecosystems. An estimated biomass of more than one million metric tonnes of jellyfish lives off the Namibian coast, for instance, spoiling fish catches and interfering with attempts to estimate fish populations and control fishing quotas, because instruments measuring the presence of fish pick up similar acoustic signals from jellyfish. The UWC group, with its UK programme partners, have been developing hydroacoustic tools for more accurate calculations, allowing future fisheries managers ‘to separate real fish from their gelatinous namesakes, and improve the estimates of fish abundance”, says Gibbons.

The centre’s work on the taxonomy and distribution of neglected local marine invertebrates can help us to assess potential treasures in our regional biodiversity. Some taxa, for instance — particularly among inconspicuous invertebrates that can’t move, such as sponges — deter grazers by using toxic chemicals, which are also a potential source of ‘wonder drugs” for treating cancers and other ailments.

Thousands of samples are collected by foreign drug companies, which then extract and test the chemicals from each, expecting maybe half a dozen to yield medicinal results. Then they work on the taxonomy of the valuable few.

The UWC group starts with the taxonomy. ‘We don’t know what we’ve got,” explains Gibbons, ‘because these invertebrates are difficult to work with and we haven’t had the expertise. The programme helped to train our people to discover what is there, which can guide us to potentially valuable organisms.

‘If, say, sponge A in the United States contains chemicals useful in curing disease B, and we find sponges off the South African coast belonging to the same family,

then we can pinpoint the taxa with potentially similar useful properties and shortcut the traditional screening process.

‘The country needs expertise in some fundamental components of biodiversity. This programme’s role in transferring skills to our region has been as significant an output as the scientific results themselves,” says Gibbons, giving credit to dedicated UK project leadership at the Natural History Museum, initially from Dr Michelle Kelly Shanks and now continuing from Dr John Lambshead.

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