The outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic has seen countries fine-tuning and strengthening the capacity of their health facilities to ensure they are primed to detect future pandemics. In Africa countries are also prioritising their technical and vaccine manufacturing capabilities with the South Africa-based biotech company Biovac already manufacturing and distributing mRNA-based vaccine.
Miss Shanna Swart, an NRF-funded PhD candidate in Chemical Engineering at CeBER, University of Cape Town (UCT) is currently involved in research that aims to “optimise a process for vaccine scale-up”. She is part of the team at the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Catalysis, hosted by the Catalysis Institute in the Department of Chemical Engineering at UCT.
Miss Swart considers herself an expert in enzymes. When she was doing her Master’s degree the focus of Miss Swart’s research project was on enzymatic saccharification of fruit waste for biofuel production. For her current research project, she used enzymes called Cytochrome P450 monooxygenases to convert by-products from the petrochemical industry into something more valuable like alcohol. She says although the potential wonder vaccine is not Covid-19 related it will have a huge impact on the economy. She says she “cannot expand on the details forIP reasons”.
Battling with chemistry
But it was not plain-sailing for the Zimbabwean born Swart who started her undergraduate degree in science at Rhodes University where she majored in psychology, human kinetics and ergonomics. She says she has never done chemistry at high school and as a result she failed it miserably. Her dean advised her to take chemistry 101 because it was a pre-requisite for most science subjects.
She worked doubly hard and this paid off as she ended up majoring in chemistry and biochemistry attaining double distinction, academic colours and honours. She also won other accolades including the Merck Award two years in a row for best chemistry student and the Duncan Whitely Award for best Biochemistry Honours student. In the end she graduated with a Master’s degree in Biochemistry, also with distinction. She reserves special praises for her chemistry lecturer at Rhodes University, Professor Mike Davies Coleman whom she describes as “a major positive influence on her academic career.
Opening more opportunities
She changed her discipline to bioprocess engineering when she went to the University of Cape Town (UCT) to study for PhD degree. She gained cross-disciplinary research skills during her study which became handy as she proceeds with her academic journey. This opened more opportunities for her including presenting her research at several local and international conferences and forums, among them, the NCCC in the Netherlands and BIOCAT in Germany.
Building 3D printer
During her PhD studies Miss Swart went on a trip to Ethiopia where she learned how to build a 3D printer. The trip was hosted by a company called Trend in Africa where a group of young scientists were teaching students from across Africa to build a 3D printer and take it back to their home country to use. She says the trip enabled her to connect with other brilliant minds from different backgrounds across the continent.
Asked who her role model is, the first names that roll out of Miss Swart’s tongue are that of Professor Sue Harrison and Dr Caryn Fenner. She says she respects and admires the duo.
“The interesting thing about respect is that it cannot be taken, it can only be given. I’ve definitely drawn professional inspiration from many women but perhaps mostly from my supervisors, Professor Harrison and Dr Fenner,” says Miss Swart.
She says Professor Harrison is a pioneer in her field and an accomplished academic with numerous accolades behind her name: she is the director of two research centres and the current deputy vice-chancellor of research and internationalisation at UCT. Similarly, Dr Fenner is the technical director of a company that is soon to be one of the leaders in Africa for driving accessible healthcare across communities by providing the first locally produced mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. These women are making a difference and I hope I would also lead by example, she says.