Distinguished women researchers

Professor Priscilla Baker is one of the 2014 Women in Science Awards winners, in the Physical and Engineering Sciences category. (Supplied)

Professor Priscilla Baker is one of the 2014 Women in Science Awards winners, in the Physical and Engineering Sciences category. (Supplied)

Winner: Professor Marina Rautenbach

Professor Rautenbach is currently employed as a full professor in biochemistry at Stellenbosch University. She was the first in her family to obtain a university degree. Having an entrepreneurial spirit from childhood, when she traded in silkworms and portrait sketches of her school friends, she was able to partially support her university studies by running a home-to-home hairdressing business, as well as working part-time. 

She successfully completed her BSc, BSc honours in biochemistry (cum laude) and an MSc in biochemistry (cum laude) at the University of Pretoria. In 1986, two years after the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to a peptide chemist RB Merrifield, Rautenbach was introduced to solid-phase peptide synthesis and peptide chemistry, and from that time, peptides and peptide chemistry became fundamental to her research. During her MSc studies, while working part-time for the University of Pretoria, she used this elegant chemistry to produce antigenic hepatitis B virus peptides, with the aim of designing a peptide-based vaccine against the hepatitis B virus. In mid-1990, a few months after she completed her MSc, she was appointed as one of the two first female lecturers in biochemistry at Stellenbosch University. 

She successfully set up a peptide synthesis facility and peptide research with little funding and infrastructure, while lecturing and doing a part-time PhD. As funding was limited for young researchers in the 1990s, making and selling synthetic peptides was important to support her PhD research. With a small research grant from Stellenbosch University in 1997, she was able not only to complete her PhD studies, but also to graduate her first two MSc students in 1999. 

In 1998, Rautenbach started the BIOPEP Peptide Group. BIOPEP has been operational for 16 years, providing sustainable research funding through contract research. BIOPEP generated at least 50% of the research funds that were crucial in Rautenbach’s hands-on supervision and training of 17 MSc, 18 PhD and 20 honours students since 1999. 

More than 60% of the students under her supervision are from previously disadvantaged groups, and three of her female students received their PhDs during the April 2014 graduation at Stellenbosch University. 

Since 1999, Rautenbach and her group of students and postdoctoral fellows were the inventors of three patents and generated 70 technical reports, conference proceedings and peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as 67 conference presentations. 

One of the most important discoveries in the peptide research field in 1987 shaped Rautenbach’s PhD research focus. An American researcher, Michael Zasloff, found that the African clawed frogs (platannas) used in the anatomy practicums seldom got infections, even when kept with stitched up wounds in the microbe-riddled aquaria. 

Upon investigation he found that the frogs produce potent antimicrobial (or antibiotic) peptides in the mucus they secrete on their skin. It is now well known that antimicrobial peptides are the most abundant antibiotics in living organisms, and that there is virtually no resistance towards nature’s antibiotic of choice. 

Antimicrobial peptides are exceptional candidates for eco-friendly, natural antimicrobials. With increasing resistance to every antibiotic available, the antimicrobial peptides are regarded as the next generation of antibiotics. In her research Rautenbach and her group found that a certain group of peptide antibiotics, the tyrocidines, produced by an ancient soil bacterium, has the potential to be developed as an antimalarial and could be used in the food industry against a bacterium that can cause lethal food poisoning (listeriosis). The tyrocidines, regarded as the forgotten antibiotics, formed part of one of the first topical antibiotics that was in clinical use before penicillin dominated the antibiotic scene. The most exciting finding in her research was that the tyrocidines can be used as eco-friendly, natural antifungals against fungi that cause plant disease and post-harvest infections. 

These natural antimicrobial peptides also have numerous applications in the scientific and biotechnological industry, nurseries, viticulture, organic farming, animal health and feeds, floriculture, aquaculture, food preservation, air and water filtration, leather and paper industries, cosmetic and skin health industries, dental care and medicine. 

Rautenbach received a R3.2-million grant for the development of tyrocidines as part of a Green Fund Project, funded by the Development Bank of Southern Africa. 

BIOPEP, which is the only facility in South Africa with the capability to produce synthetic peptides for industry and other researchers, is currently in the process of becoming a fully-fledged spin-off company.

Winner: Professor Priscilla Baker

In 1990 Professor Baker was part of the first class to obtain a BSc majoring in Ocean and Atmospheric Science at the University of Cape Town. 

She obtained a National Diploma in Analytical Chemistry (first class) in 1993 at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Drawn into the domain of electrochemical research during her National Diploma internship, she graduated with a BSc honours (chemistry) in 1995, and in 1997 successfully completed her MSc dissertation on the evaluation of trace metals in the atmosphere, as a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research bursary holder at the University of the Western Cape. 

Baker completed her PhD in the area of novel metal tin oxide composites as anodes for phenol degradation in 2004 at Stellenbosch University.

She is currently employed as a professor of chemistry at the University of the Western Cape. She is co-leader of SensorLab, an electrochemistry research group in the Department of Chemistry that focuses on the fundamental and applied electrodynamics of smart materials for sensors, energy devices, and environmental and health solutions. 

Smart materials

Her specialisation is in the application of frequency-modulated electrochemical techniques, notably electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS) to the design and evaluation of electrochemical smart materials. 

EIS is a technology that characterises organic and inorganic materials according to their equilibrium electrical properties. These materials include polymeric hydrogels that can be applied in organic fuel cells and as membrane materials for water treatment, as well as novel polymer composites that have been applied in the design of immunosensors that can detect the presence of mycotoxins (toxic chemicals produced by fungi) in fish species and water analysis. 

Baker’s more recent research includes the design and evaluation of novel electroactive actuator systems (materials that change in size or shape when stimulated by an electric field) for environmental and health monitoring. 

In addition to extensive electrochemistry instrumentation, her research laboratory houses advanced spectro-electrochemical techniques such as in situ subtractively normalised Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, a Raman spectroscopy and atomic force microscopy instrument, as well as one of only two Krüss Drop Shape Analyzers in South Africa for membrane water treatment research. 

She collaborates with researchers in the United States of America, Germany and France, and is an active member of two research consortia funded by the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme on Research and Technological Development. 

She has participated in international teaching and training programmes at Bangor University in the United Kingdom, the University of Coimbra in Portugal, and the University of Cergy-Pontoise in France. 

Baker has supervised more than 50 honours, MSc and doctoral researchers,as well as postdoctoral fellows. 

In 2006, Baker was elected chair of the Electrochemistry Division of the South African Chemical Institute and has since hosted two major international electrochemistry conferences in South Africa. 

Proceedings from these conferences were published in international peer-reviewed journals, Electrochimica Acta (Elsevier, 2010) and Analytical Letters (Taylor and Francis, 2011), with Baker as guest editor. In 2013, she was elected Vice Chair of the Analytical Electrochemistry Division of the International Society of Electrochemistry.

Runner up: Professor Jeanet Conradie

Professor Conradie obtained a master’s degree in physics in 1981, after which she chose to raise her three children before returning to the academic field. With her wide-ranging interest in science and research, she decided to change her focus area, and continued with a PhD degree in chemistry, which she obtained in March 2000. 

She spent six months as a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Physical Chemistry, University of Tromsø, Norway, between 2002 and 2003. She is currently a professor in chemistry at the University of the Free State. Her PhD degree in chemistry and her strong background in physics, computer science, mathematics and applied mathematics have led to her research interest and expertise gradually developing into the direction of computational chemistry. 

Computational chemistry is a combination of chemistry and physics (quantum physics), where mathematical methods are used to solve chemistry problems through high-performance computerised calculations. Conradie has been a National Research Foundation-rated researcher since 2001 and is currently rated as C3. Her research focus is the synergy between experimental and computational chemistry in understanding the structure and reactivity of transition metal complexes. A supercomputer is used to simulate and predict the behaviour of atoms and molecules in the real world. These reactions can be difficult and even dangerous to execute experimentally.

Conradie is one of the top 10 researchers at the University of the Free State in terms of publication output units since 2009, and in 2012 she was number one of the top 10 researchers at the university in terms of ranking per impact factor of journals. In 2011, Conradie and her co-authors were invited to contribute to two cover articles in the high-impact international chemistry journals, Dalton Transactions and the European Journal of Inorganic Chemistry. 

Conradie’s research group focuses on the characterisation of known and unknown transition metal complexes and intermediates by synthetic and computational chemistry. Transition metal porphyrin and related compounds, O,O’-chelated titanocene and titanium complexes, beta-diketonato-carbonyl complexes of rhodium(I) and rhodium(III), and dithizonato compounds of transition metal complexes are currently being investigated.

Conradie has supervised and graduated nine master’s and two PhD students, most of them obtaining their degrees with distinction. 

The training and experience the students obtain under her supervision empowers them to be competitive in national and international arenas. Her students have received a great deal of recognition, with students being selected as the best PhD student at the university in a specific year, winning prizes for the best poster at INORG2009, and being awarded gold, silver and bronze medals at the Student Symposium on Natural Science. Currently, Conradie is supervising two MSc and two PhD students, as well as two postdoctoral research fellows, and is the co-supervisor of two more PhD students.

Conradie has 115 academic publications in print, published three technical reports, delivered 21 lectures at national and international conferences, including keynote lectures by invitation, and has made several poster contributions to international conferences. Most of her publications are in high-impact journals such as Accounts of Chemical Research, Nature Chemical Biology, Journal of the American Chemical Society, Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation, Journal of Physical Chemistry A, Organometallics, Dalton Transactions, Electrochimica Acta, and Journal of Physical Chemistry B. 

She has several international collaborators, including Professor A Ghosh (Department of Chemistry and Centre for Theoretical and Computational Chemistry, University of Tromsø, Norway), Professor SJ Lippard (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts), Prof. P Brothers (Auckland, New Zealand), Professor TC Harrop (Department of Chemistry, University of Georgia, USA) and Professor JW Niemantsverdriet (Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands). 

The international impact of her research, specifically related to density functional theory calculations, is reflected inter alia by the fact that a link to one of her articles was placed on the webpage of Scientific Computing and Modelling NV of the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, by the developers of the Amsterdam Density Functional computational chemistry software programme. 

Her future and ongoing research focuses on the further applications of computational chemistry in determining the structure and energy of transition metal complexes, transition states and reaction intermediates. The computational chemistry will be applied to both homogeneous and heterogeneous systems.