School of Life Sciences

A-Ratings Recognise and Enhance the Work of UKZN Scientists

At the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) 2021 Awards, three of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science’s (CAES) distinguished professors were officially awarded A-ratings in recognition of research excellence and achievements.

In the School of Life Sciences, Professor Steven Johnson, Director of the UKZN Centre for Functional Biodiversity and South African Research Chair (SARCHI) in Evolutionary Biology received his third A-rating, while Honorary Professor Colin Chapman, an expert in restoration ecology, received his first.

In the School of Chemistry and Physics, Professor Fernando Albericio received his second A-rating.

As recipients of the NRF’s highest rating, these academics have achieved international recognition for the quality and scope of their research and its extensive impact.

Johnson, whose interests lie in the ecology, evolution and chemistry of plant pollination systems, joined the then University of Natal in 1997 after PhD studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and postdoctoral research fellowships at the University of Haifa in Israel, Uppsala University in Sweden and UCT.

Johnson’s expertise as a pollination biologist is internationally recognised, and he has 345 peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters and books to his name on a range of topics from natural history and hypothesis-driven experimental work to meta-analyses of data. He has served on the editorial boards of several international journals, and delivered numerous international talks and public lectures.

A full professor at UKZN since 2007, Johnson is the recipient of the UKZN Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s Award and the NRF President’s Award, and has supervised 38 postgraduate students and 27 postdoctoral researchers.

Also in the field of ecology, Chapman’s rating recognises his extensive research on tropical forest ecosystems and their conservation. He has prioritised understanding the roles of disease, nutrition and stress in determining primate abundance and how best to conserve the world’s biodiversity.

With training in anthropology and zoology from the University of Albert and McGill University, both in Canada, his more than four decades of work has resulted in tens of thousands of citations, with more than 530 publications to his name and an H factor of 107. His conservation-focused work has attracted more than R270 million in research funding.

Based at George Washington University in the United States, after working at McGill University and the University of Florida, Chapman’s collaborations with UKZN researchers led to his appointment as an Honorary Professor in 2017 to contribute to training South Africans and Africans in conservation biology. He also holds honorary appointments at Makerere University in Uganda and Northwest University in Xi’an, China. He worked with the National Geographic Society for nine years guiding grant giving and programme development.

Chapman’s work has resulted in appointments as a Killam Research Fellow, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a Conservation Fellow with the Wildlife Conservation Society. His awards include a Velan Foundation Award for Humanitarian Service and a Konrad Adenauer Research Award from the Humboldt Foundation.

This NRF rating will contribute to Chapman’s efforts to advance projects and training in conservation and restoration ecology.

Albericio, who joined UKZN in 2012, is known for his research on peptides, short chains of amino acids that in his research are being examined for their therapeutic potential in the treatment of disease. He completed his PhD in Chemistry at the University of Barcelona followed by postdoctoral research in the United States and France, and then work at the University of Barcelona, Millipore in the United States, the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Spain, and Yachay Tech in Ecuador.

Albericio spearheaded the establishment of UKZN’s Peptide Science Laboratory – the only one of its kind in the country. His research group, consisting of 17 researchers, postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students is one of the leading developers of new technologies – reactions, building blocks, coupling reagents, solid phase supports, protecting groups, and linkers – for the synthesis of peptides.

Their efforts are also concentrated on making peptide synthesis a more eco-friendly and sustainable process, and on synthesising peptides and small molecules that have promise for the treatment of cancer and infectious disease, the latter as part of a consortium with Spain’s University of Barcelona and the University of Catania in Italy for the development of new antimicrobial peptides.

Nanotechnology efforts underway under Albericio’s supervision are focused on developing new systems for drug delivery and strategies for diagnostics, part of a European Community-sponsored Horizon 20/20 programme featuring six other international universities that could afford training opportunities for UKZN postgraduate students.

Albericio has published more than 1 000 scientific articles, filed more than 60 patents, and graduated more than 75 PhD students, and he received the Murray Goodman Scientific Excellence and Mentorship Award from the American Peptide Society. He hopes the NRF rating will increase the amount of time he is able to spend at UKZN.

‘We thank each of the UKZN awardees for bringing honour to our Institution and flying high our excellence flag in science and research,’ said UKZN Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Nana Poku. ‘We are indeed privileged to be associated with colleagues of this calibre who continue to earn the respect of their peers in different fields.’

 Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied

Caption: From left: Professors Steve Johnson, Colin Chapman and Fernando Albericio.