/ 18 August 2014

Distinguished Young Women Researchers

A file photograph Zelda la Grange and Nelson Mandela in 2004.
A file photograph Zelda la Grange and Nelson Mandela in 2004.

Winner: Dr Nosipho Moloto

Dr Nosipho Moloto obtained her PhD in chemistry from the University of the Witwatersrand, where she is currently a lecturer and researcher. Moloto’s research career began while she was studying for an MSc at the University of Zululand. During her MSc studies she published three papers, won a number of student prizes and received a scholarship to do research work at the University of Manchester under Professor Paul O’Brien, with whom she still collaborates. She then joined the nanotechnology innovation centre at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to pursue research while completing her PhD, and gained valuable experience in project management and student supervision. She published seven papers during her PhD studies. 

Towards the end of her PhD studies, she was selected for an exchange programme with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

She then worked as a postdoctoral fellow for a year in Professor MG Bawendi’s lab at MIT. After returning from MIT, she briefly joined the University of Johannesburg and subsequently went to the School of Chemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand. Since joining the University of the Witwatersrand, she has been slowly building her own independent research group. Her research training focused largely on finding various synthetic methods for the production of semiconductor nanocrystals. While her group still focuses on this, they have started to venture into the application of these materials, looking into electronic devices such as photovoltaics and gas sensors, as well as biological applications as labelling materials. Her current group comprises of five full-time and two part-time PhD students, as well as two MSc students. 

Moloto has thus far published more than 20 papers in accredited international journals (H index of 5, an index that measures both the productivity and impact of the published work of a scientist or scholar). 

She has attracted research funding from various sources such as Thuthuka, the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme, Eskom and Carnegie, and is involved in various local and international research collaborations. She has also been active in various forums and committees, co-ordinating the Materials III course in the Faculty of Science, serving on the School of Chemistry’s safety committee, occasionally sitting on the selection and interviewing panels for the Faculty of Science, participating in the university’s Energy Forum, and serving as a focus area co-ordinator for the Materials for Energy Group (a group of researchers in chemistry, physics and metallurgy who are conducting research in energy-related topics). 

Moloto is an executive member of the South African Nanotechnology Initiative and the Gauteng Region of the South African Chemical Society. She is also a co-founder of the annual Nanotechnology Young Researchers’ Symposium, which has been successfully running since its inception in 2007. She was on the organising committees of the NanoAfrica 2012 and 2014 conferences, the biggest and longest-running nanotechnology conference in Africa. She also does volunteer work to promote science in association with the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement.

First runner-up: Professor Genevieve Langdon

Professor Genevieve Langdon completed her PhD in mechanical engineering in 2003. She is currently deputy head of the Mechanical Engineering Department of the University of Cape Town. 

She worked for two years as an 1851 Royal Commission Research Fellow at the Blast Impact and Survivability Research Unit before being appointed to the academic staff in 2006.

Blast-resistant materials

For the past 10 years Langdon has been developing and evaluating blast-resistant materials and structures for use in structural and transportation applications. 

Her research seeks to make the world a safer place by improving our understanding of how structures respond to explosion loading (which could occur owing to terrorism, landmine detonations or industrial accidents, for example). Her research work has focused on determining the failure mechanisms involved in lightweight materials like composites, foams, lattices and metal/fibre hybrids. 

The goal is to improve materials selection and the design process when manufacturing items that face an explosion loading threat. Most of the research into explosively loaded structures is limited to a small number of expensive field tests on overly complicated structures, or relies on substitute types of loading that do not represent a “real” explosion very well. 

Langdon performs actual explosive detonations under carefully controlled conditions, making her work unique in the world. No other university research group in the world has similar capabilities, and she therefore performs a lot of collaborative research with partners across the globe. 

Langdon has co-authored more than 50 journal articles, five book chapters and numerous conference papers. Well-known internationally, Langdon is also highly involved in the South African science system, and is a founder member of the South African Young Academy of Science.

Second runner-up: Professor Michelle Kuttel

Professor Michelle Kuttel is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Cape Town, where she obtained a PhD in computational chemistry. Her dual background in computer science and chemistry is important for her research in the area of computational science, where computers are used to investigate scientific questions. Kuttel’s field of interest is high-performance computing, where many computers are used simultaneously to do calculations at speed, and visualisation, where graphics tools are designed to help researchers explore, interpret and understand complex data.

In her work in computational glycomics, Kuttel uses molecular simulations to investigate the structure and dynamics of carbohydrate molecules, which are difficult to establish experimentally. 

This is critical for the development of modern carbohydrate-based vaccines. An example is her recent paper on pneumococcal serogroup 19 capsular polysaccharides, in collaboration with Professor Neil Ravenscroft. This work used simulation and visualisation to demonstrate clear structural differences between two vaccine components. 

These differences explain why the molecules are not likely to be mutually cross protective, as was originally thought. Such information is useful for the development of cheap, effective vaccines for the developing world. 

Cross-disciplinary collaborations are important for computational science. This is particularly true for the development of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope. Kuttel’s collaboration with astronomers such as Dr Sarah Blyth focuses on the development of computational solutions for the SKA, such as new methods for identifying, locating and removing radio interference, for finding new pulsars or for visualising large astronomical datasets. 

Kuttel has produced one PhD and nine MSc students, and currently supervises three PhD and eight MSc students. She has published 16 journal papers and eight conference papers. In addition, as the mother of two young daughters, she is involved in teaching computer programming to primary school girls.