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WISA Awards 2015 Marla Trindade

Science for a Sustainable Future: Women in Science Award Winner Marla Trindade

Every day we are presented with opportunities - make the most of them,” says Institute for Microbial Biodiversity and Metagenomics Director Marla Trindade. “It may sound cliched, but it’s true - we all can make a choice to contribute to something bigger than just ourselves.”

It’s something Prof Trindade strives to do with her own work - work which earned her the 2015 Distinguished Young Woman Scientist (Life Sciences) Award at the DST South African Woman in Science Awards dinner held in Johannesburg.

The theme for the 2015 Awards was Science for a Sustainable Future, celebrating the work of eminent women researchers with special reference to the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals.

Prof Trindade conducts research in microbial genomics, developing metagenomic tools to deliver biotechnology that uses microorganisms as sources of novel products and services. She also examines plant-microbe interactions to ensure agricultural sustainability and the development of biofuels and chemicals, and is involved in projects to resolve contaminated water problems.

“I find my work very rewarding,” she says. “I enjoy changing people’s perceptions of what UWC is achieving - in particular, the research excellence at UWC. I have experienced so many times, jaw-dropping reactions of visitors who see the excellent facilities we have, and how it’s matched with equally excellent and relevant research and training. And the fact that generating knowledge can lead to application in everyday life is an added drawcard.”

Born and raised in Johannesburg, the daughter of Angolan refugees (“they came with nothing, and could not even speak the language”), Prof Trindade knew early on that microbiology was for her - partly through the inspiration of her mother, a microbiologist herself.

“Microbiology is in my blood,” Prof Trindade says. “I knew even before I left school that this was the field I was most passionate about.”

It’s a passion that’s paid off - though it wasn’t always that clear that it would. “Microbiology is a very applied subject, and learning it in undergrad is very theoretical,” she explains, “but Honours was much more focused on laboratory- and research-based learning, and I discovered that I was really good at problem-solving and figuring out how things work, especially at the molecular level.”

How good?

Well, since obtaining her PhD in Microbiology at the University of Cape Town, she’s been appointed as Associate Professor in UWC’s Department of Biotechnology and as Director of UWC’s Institute for Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics (IMBM), and in 2014 she was awarded a SARChI Research Chair (UWC’s 10th, and first female) in Microbial Genomics.

And Prof Trindade also  leads the UWC team in the EU-funded PharmaSea project – a collaborative four-year project with 24 partners from 13 countries that focuses on biodiscovery research and the development and commercialisation of new bioactive compounds from marine organisms.

“The PharmaSea project has been incredibly rewarding,” she says. “It’s opened a world of opportunities, and taught me so much about the benefits of multidisciplinary and collaborative research. Not to mention our findings: the unexpected - and untapped - biodiversity harboured in South African environments has so much potential for a wide range of pharmaceutical and biotechnological applications.”

Paying it forward: The next generation of scientists

In addition to the training and supervision of post-graduate students, Prof Trindade continues to teach and coordinate Biotechnology modules at third-year level, helping to groom a future crop of microbiologists and biotechnologists to tackle South Africa’s issues.

“Nobody achieves all on their own,” she says. “The award represents the hard work and contribution of so many people: all the students, researchers and staff whose work has resulted in publications and outputs; my family, for their support, encouragement and belief in my talents and abilities; the excellent training I received in my degrees and post-doctoral projects; the University and funding agencies whose support have enabled me to grow a thriving research career. Without any of these I would not have been able to achieve anything.”

This is the second year in a row that UWC’s Faculty of Science has successfully nominated a scientist for DST Distinguished Woman Scientist Award in her field of research.

“These kinds of awards serve as messages and reminders to women that they can achieve if they want to,” Prof Trindade notes. “ It’s important for women scientists to be recognised, so that we can start changing people’s thinking about women’s abilities, and all they have to offer.”