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South Africa: CSIR Female Researchers Breaking Ground

Female researchers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), working in additive manufacturing and stem cell reprogramming, have announced some of their research breakthroughs.

Candidate researchers Londiwe Motibane and Dimakatso Gumede are involved in Additive Manufacturing and its applications and Stem Cell reprogramming, respectively.

Addressing the media in Pretoria on Tuesday, the researchers commended the CSIR for providing a conducive environment for them to excel in all areas, including those that were previously dominated by their male counterparts.

CSIR Materials Engineering Masters candidate, Motibane, who is an engineer by profession, said engineering has always been a space full of men and that has to change.

“I was previously working in mining and I must say that it was difficult to compete as a female. Women should be allowed to showcase their talents at all times because they are very capable. Organisations such as the CSIR should be commended for the continued support to women professionals.

“We are able to show that we can do just as well as our male counterparts and even better sometimes. But mostly this shows that science and engineering can be and should be done by anyone regardless of background, gender or race,” Motibane said.

3D printing

Motibane said additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is a transformative approach to industrial production that enables the creation of lighter, stronger parts and systems. It is yet another technological advancement made possible by the transition from analog to digital processes.

Dr Ntombi Mathe, a CSIR senior researcher, says that “women are no longer restricted by obstacles that restricted them in the past. One is only restricted by one’s own imagination. You can dream as big as you want, as long as you’re willing to put in the work. It’s high time we stop downplaying ourselves. There is no industry that is a “man’s industry”.

“We need to keep creating foundations for more women to enter the engineering space in order to create an environment where women are comfortable and confident,” Mathe said.

Dr Mathe showcased some of her research breakthroughs, made using the world’s largest 3D printer, which is housed at the CSIR. Some of these includes parts printed using the 3D printer such as drone frame, throttle grip, missile trail boat, and trophies developed using titanium.

The printer which is the largest in the world, is part of Project Aeroswift, a collaboration between South African company Aerosud Innovation Centre and the CSIR, funded by the Department of Science and Innovation.

The 3D printer could print a full-sized adult man using titanium powder – although it would be very expensive. The printer uses titanium powder to build its custom-made products.

The Aeroswift project resulted in a metal-additive manufacturing system which uses a laser to melt titanium powder to produce metal parts for the commercial aerospace manufacturing sector.

The system has the ability to produce geometrically complex parts according to a customer’s specification, minimising material wastage while processing difficult-to-machine materials. The system can also be used to produce parts for the power generation, automotive tooling, defence and manufacturing sectors.

Stem Cell reprogramming

While only a handful of people in South Africa have mastered Stem Cell reprogramming, Gumede is among the few researchers.

Stem cell reprogramming is the ability to reprogram stem cells which allows scientists to be able to turn any cell of the human body into a pluripotent stem cell. This has many benefits, one of which is making it possible to study and treat diseases.

Gumede is a candidate researcher of the bioengineering and integrated genomics research group. She works on creating disease models of the innate immune system to study unique African gene variants that lead to elite controllers that naturally control viral load levels without antiretroviral therapy.

She said her research seeks to address adverse drug reactions observed in the African population due to genetic diversity.

“Using pluripotent stem cells, we are able to make liver cells and screen the prescribed drugs for liver toxicity to make dose recommendation or alternative medication for African individuals who develop adverse drug reaction to commonly prescribed drugs,” Gumede said.

She said the African population is known for its genetic variation, which often affects the way in which an individual responds to particular medication.

For example, while an aspirin may work effectively for 70% of the population, it is possible that the remaining 30% may experience adverse effects.

“Therefore, as part of CSIR’s Bioengineering and Integrated Genomics group, we are looking to create effective and personalised medication for those who do not respond positively to the drugs that have been distributed for the general population,” she said.

Gumede, who is a PhD scholar of the University of Cape Town (UCT), recently submitted her doctoral thesis. She studied the role of a gene mutation that causes skin and lung fibrosis, using a scientific method called induced pluripotent stem cells.

“This approach produces any cell type in the body, such as skin or lung cells, which, in this case, provides insight into how an inherited dermatological condition is associated with lung fibrosis – a condition caused by uncontrolled scar formation that affects the organ and air sacks.

“I discovered that the gene mutation that causes this condition accelerates cell division, which contributes to fibrosis in the affected individuals and is also associated with cancer progression,” Gumede said.

With the skills that she has gained, she aims to use her PhD to further establish the stem cell platform for precision medicine, drug screening and possibly, commercialisation in the CSIR.

She also intends to use the stem cell and genome engineering platforms to find new approaches to eliminate HIV reservoirs in infected persons and, hopefully, also contribute in finding key therapeutic strategies that resolve excessive scar formation in heart and lung conditions, which are a great burden of disease worldwide.

CSIR

The CSIR is one of the leading scientific and technology research, development and implementation organisations in Africa.

Constituted by an Act of Parliament in 1945 as a science council, the CSIR undertakes directed and multidisciplinary research, technological innovation, as well as industrial and scientific development to improve the quality of life of all South Africans.

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