Dr Hanneline Smit of Stellenbosch University and 14 other young women researchers, three of them from Africa, received a research fellowship at the tenth edition of the L’Oréal-Unesco “For Women in Science” Awards, which give international recognition to women in the life sciences.
Smit was honoured along with fellow Africans Yonelle Dea Moukoumbi from Gabon, who conducts research into a hardy new strain of African rice known as Nerica, and Maria Joao Rodrigues from Mozambique, whose research examines the impact of diseases on coral communities growing in the western Indian Ocean.
Smit’s research will concentrate on the exploration of historical factors which may have shaped the current genetic diversity of small birds and mammals in the neighbouring Succulent Karoo and Nama Karoo biomes of South Africa. A biome is a large geographical area characterised by certain types of plants and animals.
The L’Oréal-Unesco fellowship programme offers doctoral and post-doctoral women scientists the opportunity to pursue their research in internationally renowned institutions outside their home countries. As of 2006 the fellowship is worth a maximum of US$40 000 over a period of two years.
In addition, five eminent women scientists from regions around the world received a L’Oréal-Unesco Award on the night. The Awards, which are a separate element of the programme, recognise high-achieving women scientists who are role models for future generations.
The five laureates are Prof Lihadh Al-Gazali from the United Arab Emirates, Assistant Prof V. Narry Kim of the Republic of Korea, Prof Ada Yonath from Israel, Prof Ana Belén Elgoyhen from Argentina, and Prof Elizabeth Blackburn from the US.
Exploring genetic differences
Smit’s research will focus on the Karoo area in the Western Cape province. In many cases small animals in the two Karoo regions in question, although they are of the same species, show genetic differences. This is thought to be due to biogeographic events in the distant past which separated the two regions on a geologic or climatic basis.
Smit plans to collect DNA samples from these creatures, study the genetic differences, correlate them with geographical data, and look for the emergence of any geographical patterns.
This information will prove useful in predicting future evolutionary pressures and identifying distinct geographical regions that may need special species protection.
“The ultimate aim of the project is to provide information that could be used to conserve the biodiversity resources in South Africa at landscape, ecosystem, habitat, community, population, species and gene levels,” said Smit.
She will work at the University of California-Berkeley in the US, under the guidance of Prof Rauri Bowie of that university’s Department of Integrative Biology. Bowie obtained his PhD from the University of Cape Town.
Smit, of Stellenbosch University’s Department of Botany and Zoology, received her doctorate in March 2008. Her dissertation focused on the phylogeography of three indigenous southern African elephant shrews. Phylogeography is the study of the distribution of genetic diversity over geographic regions.
Working under Prof Terry Robinson and Dr Bettine van Vuuren, Smit studied evolutionary relationships among 15 species of African elephant shrews and in the process she helped to discover a new species of the small mammal.
The 16th African elephant shrew species weighs a mere 47g. In accordance with scientific tradition the little creature will only be officially named when a report has been published in a recognised journal.
Encouraging scientific vocations for women
The L’Oréal-Unesco Awards for women in science was established in 1998. The fellowship programme followed two years later and since its inception has recognised a total of 120 fellows from 67 countries. In total, taking both award and fellowships into consideration, more than 500 women have been singled out for recognition.
Research projects are submitted for consideration to the fellowship selection committee by the various Unesco national commissions. These are national bodies set up by Unesco member states for the purpose of aligning their governmental and non-governmental bodies with Unesco’s work.
Submitted projects very often focus on specific needs of local populations, or may relate to original fields of research, such as a current study of the interactions of different areas of the brain in healthy and depressed patients.
Besides the three African fellows, the other fellowship recipients for 2008 hail from Nepal, Slovenia, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Mongolia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Italy and the Netherlands.