Top honours for UKZN duo

2013-09-25 00:00

TWO woman scientists studying toward their doctorates in science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal have made the top list of the 2013 L’Oréal-Unesco regional rellowships for women in science (FWIS) in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Adriana Marais and Mozambican-born Aline Saraiva Okello are among the group of 10 women honoured for their work in the scientific field and awarded fellowships of €15 000 (approximately R200 000) to put towards their Ph.D. research.

The research areas being covered by this year’s fellows include nanotechnology/materials science, computer science, hydrology, human physiology, chemistry and natural products chemistry, genetics and the relatively new and emerging scientific field of quantum biology.

It was 30-year-old Marais’s drive to become an astronaut that led to her studying physics after school. But then a conversation with a lecturer during her undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town changed all that.

“I remember talking to a lecturer about the impossibility of observing something without interacting with it, and therefore disturbing it in some way.”

Marais said she was intrigued by the realisation that the way a question was posed can influence the answer, from the level of human interaction all the way down to measurements performed on single particles.

“I realised the unique contribution that a creative human mind can have in shaping the direction of scientific discovery, and decided to continue studying theoretical physics instead,” said Marais of the journey that would eventually lead her into the exciting, emerging scientific field of quantum biology.

Marais was born in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape and attended school in KZN. In 2007 she returned to Durban from Cape Town to do her masters degree at UKZN, which she completed summa cum laude, and where she is currently studying towards her Ph.D. in the Quantum Research Group. Her research, titled “Quantum effects in photosynthesis”, is an investigation of the early stages of photosynthesis.

Okello’s fascination with scientific experiments as a schoolgirl led her to excel in science-related disciplines at school. She enrolled for a B.Sc. in civil engineering at ISUTC — an engineering institute in her hometown Maputo.

Following this, Okello worked as a lecturer until 2008. During this time she felt the need to do more scientific research in an effort to help people improve their livelihoods. This resulted in her being named a Ford Foundation Scholar, and being awarded a scholarship to study for her masters degree in hydrology at Unesco-IHE in Delft, the Netherlands. She graduated in 2010 with a distinction.

It was while studying here that Okello met Kenyan Nick Okello, who was also completing his masters degree at the institution. The couple got engaged in January 2010 and were married six months later in Maputo. The couple now livs on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast with their two-year-old daughter Zawadi.

Okello is currently pursuing a Ph.D. degree in hydrology at the Unesco-IHE. Her research study focuses on hydrology and water resources management, and is being conducted in collaboration with the Centre for Water Resources Research of the UKZN.

“I’m using tracers, remote sensing and hydrological modelling to better understand hydrological processes in the Incomati river basin, particularly those related with run-off generation processes, to inform and support improved operational water management in the basin,” 30-year-old Okello explained.

“The award will also help me finish my Ph.D. research, as my funds are almost depleted and I’m a year behind schedule due to maternity leave,” she says. “Now I’ll be able to finish my fieldwork and work more intensively on my final research outputs.”

Bertrand de Laleu, L’Oréal South Africa managing director, says the chief objective of the regional fellowship is to increase the participation of women in the field of science.

“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.”

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