Science award winners aim to compete in international arena

The two South African scientists, who were awarded 2013 L'oréal-Unesco regional fellowships for women in science, said on Wednesday that they would use the money to compete in the international arena, through attending conferences and publishing papers.

Adriana Marias (University of KwaZulu-Natal) is conducting research into quantum biology and Mpho Ivy Raborife (University of Witwatersrand) focuses on computer science.

Marias and Raborife received €15 000 each towards their doctoral research. Of the 10 fellows from sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of the winners are based at South African universities. The programme is aimed at encouraging women to conduct and complete doctoral research in the male-dominated field of science.

A problem often experienced by South African postgraduates and postdocs is that the cost of publishing papers and attending international conferences showcasing research in their fields is prohibitively expensive.

"To get the best out of [your research, you need] to publish internationally," said Raborife. "It gives you the widest scope. It is expensive to go to conferences and publish. It is $1 100 for one of the journals. Without award, my research would have had to go to the other less ranked journals – but the [higher] the ranking, the more citations, the more your material gets noticed."

Her research involves developing computer models to optimise group purchasing power for small- and medium-sized enterprises. She likes to focus on applied science. "You need research for everything, [natural] science, social science. We might not get half the glory of being a medical doctor. We work in the background, predicting trends and patterns," she said.

Quantum physics
Marais's research is very theoretical, but is helping the world to understand quantum physics, specifically quantum mechanics on biological systems. "So far, my research has focused on the theoretical modelling of energy and charge transfer in photosynthesis [the process by which plants convert solar energy in food], both processes where quantum effects have been shown to play a role. We have proposed open quantum systems models showing how certain features of an environment can assist energy transfer within parameter regimes relevant for photosynthesis," she explained.

Marais is based at KwaZulu-Natal's quantum research group, the only one of its kind of the continent.

"Talking to these [international experts] is the best thing to [do to] understand their research, and spending time in their labs. With the [fellowship] money, I will be able to spend months at a time working with the people [whose work] I'm basing my modelling on," Marais said.

Both women are planning to become research scientists. "As you do research, a lot of open questions come up," Raborife said, adding that academia offers her an opportunity to answer these questions.

Agreeing with Raborife, Marais said: "There are open questions that present themselves to you [while you're doing research]. I have a lot of other projects that I haven't been able to squeeze into [my] PhD."

'Male-dominated sector'
The fellowship programme is open to women scientists under the age of 40 in sub-Saharan Africa who are reading for a doctoral science degree. It was first piloted in 2010.

L'oréal South Africa managing director Bertrand de Laleu said: "Women face a number of challenges in this still heavily male-dominated sector. L'oréal seeks to assist by removing one of these hurdles, which is access to finance.

"Not only is it anticipated that this will increase their active involvement and contribution to the sciences, but it will also enable women to positively impact social and economic progress in various ways, such as through addressing climate change and public health issues, for example.

"We believe the women we assist have the potential to make great strides in the field of science; in fact, two of the beneficiaries of our global programme have gone on to win Nobel prizes," he said.

He said that the programme received 158 applications from sub-Saharan Africa.

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