Distinguished young women in the life sciences

Dr Marieka Gryzenhout is a University of Pretoria graduate, specialising in mycology, fungal systematics, plant pathology and ecology. On completion of her -doctorate, Gryzenhout had already authored or co-authored 25 peer-reviewed papers.

In 2010 she was the recipient of the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations’ Outstanding Doctoral Research award.

She co-authored a book following on her doctoral research called Taxonomy, phylogeny, and ecology of bark-infecting and tree-killing fungi in the Cryphonectriaceae with professors Brenda and Mike Wingfield.

The systematic work that culminated in the monograph is instrumental in the field of forest pathology; it enables rapid identification of numerous tree pathogens, some of which are ecologically and economically devastating.

At only 37, Gryzenhout has an h-index (citations) of 13. She has 60 peer-reviewed publications, two chapters in books and a number of popular publications on mycology, including a field guide to South African mushrooms.

Subsequent to her doctorate, Gryzenhout’s work has earned her a L’Oréal national fellowship, a Claude Leon Foundation post-doctoral fellowship, an Ethel Mary Doidge Medal for best young mycologist from Africa from the International Mycological Association, the coveted National Research Foundation Y1-rating for young researchers and membership of the South African Young Academy of Science.

In 2009 and 2010 she was first runner-up for the department of science and technology’s Distinguished Young Woman Scientist award.

She recently established a research programme, Mycotoxi-genic and Phytopathogenic Fungi, at the University of the Free State.

She is president of the African Mycological Association, general secretary of the International Society for Fungal Conservation and a member of the nomenclature committee for fungi and a permanent committee of the International Botanical Congress.

First runner-up: Professor Wanda Markotter
Professor Wanda Markotter completed her PhD at the University of Pretoria in 2007 and is currently an associate professor in the university’s department of microbiology and plant pathology.

Her research focuses on the ecology, epidemiology, pathogenicity and diagnostics of rabies, as well as zoonotic pathogens associated with African bat species. Her research generated new knowledge on the incidence, diversity and patho-genicity of rabies-related viruses in South Africa and other regions of Africa. Her research also led to the first identification of several other families of viruses associated with bat species in Africa.

A new diagnostic method, specifically- for African rabies-causing viruses, was published in 2010 in an international journal on microbiology.

This test is currently- used as a diagnostic method in national diagnostic reference laboratories to diagnose suspected human rabies cases and as a confirmatory method for animal rabies cases, specifically involving degraded samples.

She has published 28 peer-reviewed research papers in international journals. In 2008, she received a L’Oréal South Africa fellowship for women in science.

Markotter serves on the editorial board of PLoS One, an open-access resource database published by the Public Library of Science, and plays a key role in other bodies such as the national rabies advisory group.

She is actively involved in creating disease awareness and in promoting the conservation of bat species; she has served on the Gauteng and Northern Regions bat interest group committee since 2008.

Thirteen BSc honours and 12 MSc students graduated under her supervision, six of them cum laude.

Currently she is the main or co-supervisor of five PhD and four MSc students. She teaches several undergraduate and postgraduate courses and is regularly involved in training activities to build capacity in South Africa and Africa.

She has been invited to present regional training courses for the International Atomic Energy Agency on the epidemiology, diagnostics and bioinformatics of -diseases, as well as training courses for the World Organisation for Animal Health and Ghana’s veterinary services directorate.

Second runner-up: Dr Christina Thobakgale
Dr Thobakgale is from the rural village Ga-Mashashane in Limpopo and was raised by a single parent. She is the first of eight siblings that entered tertiary level education.

She graduated with a PhD from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2012 and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Ragon Institute of Harvard University, as well as the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2011 to 2012.

Thobakgale was recently appointed senior lecturer and researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s HIV pathogenesis programme. For the past few years her research focused on understanding the cellular and viral factors that influence disease progression in HIV-infected infants.

Findings from her PhD work, which involves children infected with HIV, showed the factors that significantly determine disease outcome in infants are the age at the time of infection, whether viral proteins are recognised by the infant’s immune system, the genetic make-up of the transmitting mother or the child and the functionality of the immune cells.

Her research has been presented at 10 international and four national meetings and has had an impact in changing treatment guidelines for children worldwide.

Thobakgale’s current research focuses on innate immune responses during early and late stages of infection and their impact on controlling HIV. She has authored and co-authored 18 publications in internationally recognised peer-reviewed journals.

Thobakgale has a keen interest in the development of young scientists and currently supervises a -laboratory technician and a master’s student.

She is looking forward to expanding the group as they contribute to finding solutions to the HIV and TB -epidemics.

She is a recipient of -several awards, including from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Columbia University-Southern Africa Fogarty Aids international training and research program, and the Golden Key international honour society of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

She organised the South African Immunology Society meeting in Cape Town in 2009 and was recently co-chair of the Basic Sciences Track of the 6th South African Aids Conference in Durban in June 2013.

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