Mike Wingfield, a distinguished professor at the University of Pretoria (UP)’s Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) was on Tuesday conferred the 21st edition of the prestigious annual Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award. The accolade is a flagship award by the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust that recognises scholarship of the highest calibre across various academic and research disciplines. What made this year’s award extraordinary is the fact that for the first in its history both wife and husband won it. In 2015 his wife, Brenda Wingfield, a professor of genetics at UP, was a joint winner of the award.
Building the local academy
The R2 million award was initiated by the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust (OMT) in 2000 to commemorate its founder, Harry Oppenheimer by supporting human and intellectual development including advancing scholarship. The OMT dates back to 1958, and over the past five years, it disbursed between R100 million to R130 million annually, with roughly 60% allocated to higher education. This is part of a sustained effort to build the local academy.
The aspect of medical mycology
The project is focused on fungi that cause diseases in humans in South Africa and elsewhere in the world. “The aim of this project will be to determine the ecological origin of two species of fungi that are well-known pathogens of humans, and both known to occur in South Africa. In doing so, I envisage promoting an important yet neglected aspect of medical mycology,” said Professor Wingfield.
He added that the fungi occur in mines and infect the skin and lymphatic tissues. The other causes severe pulmonary disease. “We know very little about them – other than from a medical perspective,” said Professor Wingfield. Through the project, Professor Wingfield hopes to discover more about where these fungi live naturally, to better understand them, and to avoid the diseases that they cause.
Fungus in roses
The one fungus that Professor Wingfield will track is sometimes known for its relationship to roses and handlers getting pricked by the thorns. But what he seeks to establish is whether it is a fungus on rose thorns – in rose thorns – or if it is found somewhere else such as the soil and using injuries such as those caused by rose thorns to enter our bodies, he explained. Regarding mines, the focus would be on finding out whether the fungus is in the wood or whether injuries from wooden splinters provide entry points for the fungus, which is found naturally in the environment, he added.
Fungi pose threat to food security
Professor Wingfield said the project is expected to significantly impact humanity, adding “We need to know a lot more about the world around us in terms of microbes – where they are in the natural environment and what threats they pose to us. Take a plant disease example – most diseases of plants are caused by fungi.” He said the fungi can also pose a serious threat to food security. “They pop up like SARS COV-2 unexpectedly and many times from unknown sources. This, we need to know more about – where are they? What are the long-term threats? Knowing such things prepares us for a more secure future,” said Professor Wingfield.
Building research bridges
It is hoped this project will enhance and deepen collaboration between plant pathologists and health sciences. Said Professor Wingfield: “There is a much smaller community of scientists that consider fungi from the medical perspective and most work at the clinical level. We thus have a good opportunity to get to know each other better and to build research bridges and opportunities. I hope to at least explore those opportunities and to get this process started.”
Awards and accolades
Apart from setting about FABI, of which he was a director for 25, Professor Wingfield has received several awards and these include, among others:
- being the president of the International Union of Forestry Research Organisations (IUFRO), representing more than 15 000 forest scientists globally
- the African Union’s Kwame Kwame Nkrumah Award
- the Herschel Medal of the Royal Society of South Africa and
- the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Science and Technology Forum.
In addition, he has received honorary doctorates from North Carolina State University and the University of British Colombia, to mention just two. He is also one of a select number of academics in South Africa included in the Clarivate list of the world’s most highly cited scientists.
In his acceptance speech, Professor Wingfield said: “This award has come to me in the latter part of my career. Maybe that is mostly the case for awards of this type that have huge prestige and likely would not go to early career scientists. I see my role as one primarily of mentorship. To pass on my knowledge and experience to younger scientists – to share my passion for the fungi and for research with others that might build on what I have been privileged to do – not only via this award – but linked to my career as a scientist.”
Fortifying medical mycology
Said the chair of the OMT, Jonathan Oppenheimer: “Professor Wingfield’s project is a game changer. Although some excellent work on the ecology of fungi such as Sporothrix has been conducted by members of the Southern African Society for Plant Pathology, very little connection has been made to those researchers working on the clinical relevance of these fungi. An important part of this project will be to fortify the field of medical mycology in South Africa and the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust will give him the necessary support in line with its vision.”
Placing focus on research excellence
UP’s vice-chancellor and principal also graced the ceremony with his presence. He said the award “showcases the strong focus that UP places on research excellence and postgraduate education. We are a future-focused university that is strong on trans-disciplinary research. Conducting research that makes an impact underpins the University’s strategy.”