FLAIR Fellowships a Boost for Three UKZN Researchers

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Three UKZN scientists are among 30 early career researchers in Africa to receive support for their investigative work from the Future Leaders – African Independent Research (FLAIR) programme.

They are Dr Clinton Veale of the School of Chemistry and Physics, Dr Jaclyn Mann of the School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences (SLMMS), and Dr Samuel Iwarere of the School of Engineering.

FLAIR programme support is aimed at helping develop independent research careers in African institutions and ultimately for individuals to lead their own research groups.

The Flair Fellowships, awarded for the second time, are a partnership between the African Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund to support talented African researchers for two years to undertake cutting-edge scientific research that will address global challenges facing developing countries. The Fellowships, worth US$391 500 each, are part of an effort to grow and retain scientific talent in Africa to improve the continent’s scientific output and sustainable development.

Selected from a pool of more than 700 applicants, the 2020 FLAIR Fellowship cohort conducts diverse research in a wide range of areas of particular relevance for Africa, from sustainable agriculture to health to clean energy storage and more. Researchers are drawn from diverse African countries including Sudan, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Cameroon, Uganda, South Africa and Ghana.

Veale, a senior lecturer and researcher in Organic Chemistry, received the Fellowship for a project that will develop mass spectrometry based models of key Protein-Protein Interactions (PPIs) as novel targets for neglected diseases. This research forms part of a UKZN flagship project working in collaboration with KRISP, Rhodes University and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

‘This technology will allow us to efficiently identify inhibitors of these targets in the search for new medicines for unmet drug needs,’ said Veale. ‘We are currently exploring the PPI between the chaperone HSP90 and co-chaperone HOP, as a target for triple-negative breast cancer, a disease that disproportionally affects women of sub-Saharan African origin and currently has no targeted therapy.’

Veale received his MSc in Medicinal and Biological Chemistry from the University of Edinburgh, followed by his PhD in Chemistry from Rhodes University, joining UKZN in 2018 where he has focused on the application of synthetic organic and biophysical chemistry methods for the design of biologically active compounds.

Mann, a senior lecturer and researcher in the SLMMS who is also a faculty member of the HIV Pathogenesis Programme and senior researcher and supervisor in the Sub Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence, will explore the issue of cells that act as HIV reservoirs but are unaffected by antiretroviral treatment, presenting a barrier to curing HIV through this therapy. By investigating the currently unclear mechanism by which these reservoirs endure treatment in a dormant or slowly mutating state, Mann hopes to inform future cure strategies.

Mann, who completed all her studies and training at UKZN and who joined the University as a senior lecturer in 2013, said she was honoured to be awarded the fellowship.

A researcher in the Thermodynamics Research Unit (TRU) in Chemical Engineering, Iwarere is working on research which seeks to harness the power of non-thermal plasma (NTP), an emerging water treatment technology, to develop an innovative low-cost water purification module suitable for low-income communities to combat the challenge of hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa drinking from untreated water sources.

Iwarere, who did his masters, PhD and postdoctoral research at UKZN, completed his undergraduate and honours degrees in Industrial Chemistry at the University of Ilorin in Nigeria.

‘It was the most intense funding process that I have engaged in,’ said Iwarere. ‘It is a great honour to receive international recognition for my research effort, and I am most grateful to God for His grace, to my colleagues who assisted with comments and feedback on my proposal during my application and interview preparation, and to the TRU.’

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied