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11 March 2020
Darius Martin: Diagnosing Ebola, Developing African Science - And Having Fun

(Published - 11 March 2020}

University of the Western Cape Biotechnology PhD student, Darius Riziki Martin, won a prize for the Best Poster Presentation at the 10th International Conference of the African Materials Research Society (AMRS2019) for his work developing a rapid point-of-care diagnostic system for detection of the Ebola virus.

Darius, who is affiliated to the Department of Science and Technology/Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre (DST/Mintek NIC) at UWC, aims to develop a rapid point-of-care diagnostic system for the detection of the Ebola virus in blood samples - a test that would shorten the time to get a diagnostic result. The rapid identification, isolation and treatment of infected individuals can slow down the spread of Ebola viral infections and save lives. The Ebola virus causes haemorrhagic fever, which is a fatal and highly infectious disease, with a mortality rate of 90%.

“I like the fact that science offers the possibility to translate an idea into an innovative business venture. I enjoy the challenge research presents and how you sometimes have to struggle before getting an experiment on the right course. And even now, I’m amazed that I can work on such serious problems and try to develop solutions that can benefit others: science is fun.”

AMRS2019 was held at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology in Tanzania. Another UWC student from the DST/Mintek NIC, Dr Nandipha Loveness Botha, who is also post-doctoral student in Chemistry, won the award for the Best Oral Presentation at the conference. Over 300 participants from Africa, the USA and Europe attended AMRS2019.

As an undergrad in Kenya, Darius studied Molecular Biology at Kenyatta University. He then moved to South Africa to further his studies.

“I didn’t choose UWC,” he says. “UWC chose me - I was destined to do my postgrad here. I am optimistic that I am at the right place to achieve my dreams.”

Through the efforts of Professor Martin Onani from Chemistry, Darius was offered a Research Assistantship in 2015 within the DST/Mintek NIC, under the supervision of Professor Mervin Meyer in the Department of Biotechnology. In 2016, he registered as a BSc-Honours student in the same department. He continued to work with Profs Meyer and Onani, and in 2019 he graduated with his MSc degree (Cum Laude). “I enjoyed research and just couldn’t get enough. I had to continue,” he says. He is currently a 2nd-year PhD student in Biotechnology.

“My studies at UWC allowed me to get hands-on experience in most of the molecular biology work that I had only explored theoretically during my first degree in Kenya,” Darius says. “My academic journey has since been an exciting one full of adventure.”

The DST/Mintek NIC at UWC is part of a consortium between Mintek, the South African Medical Research Council, the Water Research Commission, Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. The group at UWC, under the leadership of Prof Meyer, develops bio-molecular functionalized nanomaterials for applications in the diagnosis and treatment of Ebola, HIV, TB, obesity, diabetes and cancer.

“Ten years from now, I plan to be one of the leading scientists investigating diagnostic and curative agents for infectious diseases - and to be the owner of my own diagnostic company. I’ll also be giving back to my community - either in the form of employment or by educating the community as a lecturer.”