Engineering food supplies

As a young learner growing up in Zimbabwe, Dionne Shepherd (née Miles), a Best Emerging Young Scientist finalist, was fascinated by the minute scales of molecular/physical science through to the massive scales of astronomy, a fascination that continued throughout her school career.

She did her undergraduate studies and a BSc Hons at Rhodes University and then joined the University of Cape Town for her master’s and PhD.

The main thrust of her PhD was to research strategies for developing maize streak virus (MSV)-resistant maize by genetic engineering.

MSV ranks among the most serious biological threats to food security in sub-Saharan Africa. Genetically engineered MSV resistance is an agricultural biotechnology objective in efforts to eradicate poverty in Africa.

After obtaining her PhD, she worked at UCT from 2003 until 2007. For her postdoctoral work, she tested its genetically modified (GM) maize in greenhouse trials, showing that the resistance strategy is effective.

Since September 2007 Shepherd has held a research post at UCT. She says that the next step in the research is to perform field trials to prove the resistance holds up over several growing seasons and to evaluate the safety and environmental impact of the GM crop.

As well as the biotechnology aspect of her work, she also collaborates with Drs Arvind Varsani and Darrin Martin of UCT on one of the largest non-human pathogen virus diversity studies to be carried out in the world.

Together with PhD students Betty Owor and Adérito Monjane, they are investigating the diversity of mastre­viruses (the genus to which MSV belongs) and have set up a network of collaborators throughout Africa. Based on their diversity studies so far, they have shown that their GM maize is resistant to the most prevalent and severe viral strains identified throughout sub-Saharan Africa. 

MSV is endemic to Africa. This, the first GM MSV-resistant maize in the world, was developed by an all-African team and is a first step towards Africa losing its reliance on foreign biotechnology and multinational seed companies.

Shepherd has published 14 papers in international journals (with a 15th in press) and one book chapter, and has had considerable international recognition for her work on developing MSV-resistant transgenic maize.

Mentors who have had an impact on her career include Professor Don Hendry (her undergraduate lecturer and honours supervisor), Professor Ed Rybicki and Professor Jennifer Thomson (her PhD supervisors who began the project she is working on), and her colleague Darrin Martin.

Award categories

  • Distinguished Woman Scientist Award in the Area of Life Science. Criteria: PhD and five years postdoctoral experience; research project must contribute to the advancement of the country’s knowledge base.

  • Achiever Award for a Woman Scientist in Industry. Criteria: A relevant qualification and at least five years post-basic experience; the candidate must be able to demonstrate sustained high levels of contribution to her chosen industry.

  • Best Emerging Young Woman Scientist in the Area of Life Science. Criteria: PhD and less than five years postdoctoral experience.

  • (Two) L’Oréal South Africa 2008 Postdoctoral Fellowships:

  • L’Oréal South Africa Fellowship for Women in Science with the support of the South African Unesco National Commission, in association with the Department of Science and Technology—Life Sciences and Material Sciences. Criteria: Outstanding academic achievement in life sciences or material sciences.
  • Women Scientist fellowships:

  • Category: Women from Africa. Criteria: Scientists with at least two years post-master’s research experience.
    Category: Gender Responsive Research. Criteria: Scientists with at least two years post-master’s research experience.
    Category: Research in an area where the participation by women is traditionally low. Criteria: Female scientists with at least two years post-master’s research experience in architecture, computer/information sciences, engineering, mathematics/statistics, astronomy, physics or astrophysics.

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