School of Life Sciences

AHRI staff and students interact with learners from Bonela Secondary School in Durban, during National Science Week.

UKZN Celebrates National Science Week

Every year during the first week of August, South Africa celebrates National Science Week, a Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) initiative aimed at popularising STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) topics and careers amongst the general population.

This year saw STEC@UKZN team up with the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) to promote Science to the public. STEC@UKZN is the University’s in-house Science Centre situated within the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science on the Westville campus, whilst AHRI is an independent, transdisciplinary scientific research institute based across two campuses in KwaZulu-Natal, the Durban one being housed at UKZN’s Medical School.

The first three days of August witnessed a hive of activity at AHRI’s laboratories as Grade 11 learners from Bonela Secondary, Umkhumbane Secondary and Chesterville Secondary schools visited the internationally acclaimed facilities and learnt what it is like to be a medical researcher or laboratory technician. AHRI staff pulled out all the stops, setting up experiments for the aspirant scientists to participate in and chatting to them about their daily routine and cutting-edge research into diseases such as HIV, TB and COVID-19.

Two up-and-coming researchers, AHRI laboratory supervisor Dr Sandile Cele and UKZN PhD student Ms Zakithi Mkhize, shared their research into COVID-19 and HIV respectively at two well-attended online evening lectures. What Do Scientists Do? A Look Inside the Ivory Tower continued the highly successful 2021 series of edutaining public talks covering a variety of interesting scientific topics.

Cele took his audience “Behind the Scenes of COVID-19”, sharing his intimate involvement in the South African and global research response to COVID-19. He led the studies that first isolated and characterised the live Beta variant. He additionally led the study that described how variants can evolve in sub-Saharan Africa and his research output has helped put South Africa at the forefront of COVID-19 research. Mkhize – in her presentation – Doing HIV Research in the Lab: The Hunt for the Cure Continues shared her work in HIV cure studies, particularly on understanding the dynamics of transcription during HIV infection and latency.

UKZN’s National Science Week celebrations were rounded off with a fun-filled Open Day hosted by STEC@UKZN. Students and staff were welcomed to the Science Centre and shown the hidden wonders of UKZN’s Geological Museum and enjoyed the interactive displays housed in the Centre.

‘Our goal is to bring Science to the public and share our excitement and passion for this fascinating and essential subject,’ said STEC Co-ordinator, Dr Tanja Reinhardt. ‘If we can reach South Africa’s future scientists whilst they are still at school and ignite their interest in pursuing Science as a career, then we have done our job.’

Words and photographs: Sally Frost