UCT researchers excel at L’Oréal-UNESCO awards

14 Nov 2019 - 08:45

From left: H.E. Mr Aurélien Lechevallier, Professor Martiale Zabaze-Kana (UNESCO), Chelsea Tucker (UCT), Emma Platts (UCT), Dr Yogandree Ramsamy (University of Kwa-Zulu Natal), Dr Busiswa Ndaba (Agricultural Research Council), Dr Melissa Nel (UCT), Sinenhlanhla Sikhosana (University of Kwa-Zulu Natal), Gilles Antoine (L’Oréal South Africa), Shantelle Claassen (UCT) and Dr Phil Mjwara (South African Department of Science & Innovation).

Four women researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT) were among the seven recognised by the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science South African National Programme for their excellent contributions to science.

Shantelle Claassen (Department Pathology), Emma Platts (Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics) and Chelsea Tucker (Department of Chemical Engineering) – all PhD candidates – were each awarded an R80 000 grant to be put towards the completion of their doctoral studies.

Dr Melissa Nel – a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Medicine – received a grant of R160 000 to help further her laboratory research.


“I was led here by curiosity, existentialism and a desire to contribute to our understanding of the universe.”

UCT’s four researchers are among only seven chosen to participate in the inaugural L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science South African National Young Talents programme. The programme identifies and rewards talented young women scientists in the fields of formal sciences, life sciences, environmental sciences, physical sciences, engineering and technological sciences.

The winning researchers were selected by a jury of independent experts for the scientific excellence of their work from over 175 applicants.

A glittering award ceremony was held in Johannesburg on Thursday, 7 November to celebrate the South African researchers and officially hand over their research grants.

  • Shantelle Claassen, Department of Pathology

Nasopharyngeal bacterial community profiles as a biomarker for Lower Respiratory Tract Infections (LRTI) during infancy

“Lower respiratory tract infections remain the biggest killer of children under the age five – with the primary victims being children from Saharan African countries,” says Claassen. “It, therefore, made perfect sense to investigate the bacterial causes of these infections within the largest epidemiological birth cohort study in Africa, the Drakenstein Child Health Study, under supervision of Professor Heather Zar who has previously been announced as a L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Laureate for her role in improving and saving children’s lives across the globe.”

Her project aims to determine nasopharyngeal bacterial community profiles prior to and at the onset of lower respiratory tract infections during the first year of life. The objective is to better understand the role of bacterial communities in the upper and lower respiratory tract in health and disease.

  • Emma Platts, Department of Mathematics & Applied Mathematics

Machine learning and data clustering techniques to probe fast radio bursts and constrain cosmological parameters

“I’ve always been fascinated by physics and the universe. They feel so far removed from our everyday reality and yet govern our existence,” Platts says. “I was led here by curiosity, existentialism and a desire to contribute to our understanding of the universe.”

She adds that being a recipient of this award seems almost surreal and that she sees it as a testament to her supervisor, Professor Amanda Weltman, “who saw something in me (even when I didn’t) and has continuously supported and encouraged me.”

  • Chelsea Tucker, Department of Chemical Engineering

Designing a catalyst with improved fuel selectivity for decentralised waste-to-fuel production in Africa

Tucker’s research is focused on designing a catalyst for a simple, cheap, small-scale waste-to-fuel process that converts organic waste from communities into low-carbon diesel and electricity.

Through the course of her studies, Tucker has had the opportunity to join the Mark Shuttleworth Foundation, where she got to meet Shuttleworth himself and Siyabulela Xuza – a rocket scientist whose experiments in his mother’s kitchen culminated in him developing a cheaper and safer rocket fuel.

“These two South African-born scientists changed the game for me,” Tucker says. “It was then that I realised that science had the power to solve problems, benefit communities and change the world.”

  • Dr Melissa Nel, Department of Medicine

Investigating the genetic basis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in subjects of African genetic ancestry

Nel’s research focuses on understanding the genetic factors that predispose individuals to developing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a devastating neurodegenerative disorder for which there is no cure – yet.

“I have chosen this research project as it has the potential to shed new light on the disease process in ALS, which might help African sufferers in future by informing the development of effective treatments and diagnostic tests,” she says.

Being chosen as one of the recipients of the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Young Talents has motivated Nel. “It is wonderful to be acknowledged for my contributions to science,” she says. “This award recognises that my field of research is important for Africans.”

Spotlight on South African researchers

The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science initiative is a result of a partnership between the French cosmetics company L’Oréal and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It began 21 years ago and has supported and raised the profile of 107 laureates and more than 3 100 talented young doctoral and postdoctoral scientists, providing research grants in 117 countries.


“It was then that I realised that science had the power to solve problems, benefit communities and change the world.”

In previous years, South African researchers participated in the larger L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science sub-Saharan Africa Regional programme. However, the programme has grown so significantly that a decision was made to split it in two:

  • A new national programme for South Africa.
  • The regional programme for the 48 other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

By doing this, L’Oréal and UNESCO can pursue their vision of empowering even more young women scientists.

“Today, there are simply not enough women scientists in Africa to drive change at the scale at which it is needed,” explains Gilles Antoine, country manager of L’Oréal South Africa.

“Science and technology are among the principle keys to addressing these challenges. It is vital that women and men are empowered to contribute fully and equally to the development of solutions, foster innovation and enrich locally relevant research.”

The seven South African researchers will, however, still participate in the regional programme by attending leadership training and a special award ceremony in Dakar, Senegal.

Story:  Nadia Krige

Photo:  L'Oreal South Africa