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All-woman team of Pretoria scientists sets sail for South Atlantic

All-woman team of Pretoria scientists sets sail for South Atlantic

Four postgraduate students from the University of Pretoria’s (UP) department of biochemistry, genetics and microbiology are about to set sail for the South Atlantic.

The all-female team of scientists will spend 36 days aboard the RV SA Agulhas II, which will be operated by the national environmental affairs department.

As part of a programme supported by the National Research Foundation and the SA National Antarctic Programme, the students will collect samples and conduct experiments in the ocean.

Team leader Mancha Mabaso, Caitlyn Fourie, Sade Magabotha and Francinah Ratsoma will join a team of scientific researchers from several SA universities.

“We hope to reveal new insights into microorganisms [bacteria, archaea, fungi and viruses] in the South Atlantic,” Mabaso said.

“The large research programme focuses on marine environments that are geographically strategic for SA. While there have been several large projects focused on birds, seals and other charismatic macro fauna, few studies have assessed the role played by microorganisms in the South Atlantic. The team aims to shed light on the exact role played by microbial communities in regulating the function of the oceans [ecosystem services].”

Mabaso, a PhD genetics student, has participated in several marine voyages in the Southern and Pacific oceans. This will be her first trip to the South Atlantic.

I am enthusiastic about the role of women, especially black women, in marine microbial ecology and in science
Mancha Mabaso, team leader and PhD genetics student

“I am enthusiastic about the role of women, especially black women, in marine microbial ecology and in science. Research has always been notoriously male-centric, and it is empowering to be part of a research group that gives us a platform to grow and make a meaningful contribution to the field.”

Her doctoral studies explore how nutrient supplementation may affect microbial function and carbon sequestration in marine environments.

“The findings of this study will have greater implications for understanding climate change in the global ocean,” she said.

Fourie, who is doing her master’s in genetics, is interested in understanding the evolution of microorganisms in the oceans.

“My project focuses on microbial gene duplication events. The extent of gene duplications and their consequences on marine microbial communities have not been well studied. I hope the samples I collect during the cruise will help resolve this knowledge gap.”

Bioinformatics master’s student Magabotha said her project aims to develop new computational tools for studying the evolution of microbial communities.

As a computational biologist, she spends most of her time on her computer, processing and extracting useful biological information from sequenced data sets.

“The process of collecting samples and the unpredictability of the insights they will provide will certainly make for an exciting adventure.”

A PhD student in microbiology, Ratsoma focuses on understanding the agricultural importance of extracellular vehicles.

“Surprisingly, we know very little about microbial functionality in extreme marine environments,” she said.

“I hope to provide fundamental insights that may have agricultural applications. I hope my results will contribute to improved soil fertility and plant tolerance to environmental stressors.”

The students are being supervised by Prof Thulani Makhalanyane of the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics at UP.

“I am very pleased women scientists in SA are taking their rightful place in leading microbial oceanography,” he said.

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