With biology always being a firm interest, Dr Lucia Steenkamp wavered between becoming a medical doctor or a researcher. Her fondness for cooking and baking also had her consider opening a wedding venue. Fortunately for South Africa, aptitude test results gave the required nudge to become a researcher in biochemistry.
More than 20 years after her decision to become a researcher, with 5 patents, 5 technology packages and more than 10 technology demonstrators in the bag, Dr Lucia Steenkamp is an expert in the field of biocatalysis. In 2018, her work earned her the Distinguished South African Women in Science Award for Research and Innovation. Other career highlights include being a finalist in the 2013 and 2019 National Science and Technology Forum Awards for SMMEs, and in 2020, for Corporate Organisations; and leading the Industrial Biocatalysis Hub for South Africa for the next three years.
“The latter gives us the opportunity to really advance biocatalysis research and commercialisation in the country and contribute to the bio-economy. This may also result in the development of skilled jobs in the manufacturing sector,” she says.
She explains, “Biocatalysis is the ultimate green technology. Through biocatalysis we identify and optimise microorganisms and/or enzymes to accomplish specific reactions and produce certain desired molecules, instead of using classical chemical technologies. The technologies we develop do not require harsh chemicals or high temperatures; they consume little energy, and normally generate little to no waste.”
“Consumers are demanding greener technologies. By using biocatalysis, the environment does not encounter the same waste load. Also, products from this process are classified as ‘natural’, meaning that the commercial partner can ask a higher price for the product compared to products produced via classical chemical methods.”
A day in the life
Passionate about hands-on research, Steenkamp spends about 75% of her time in the laboratory. She engages with and identifies the needs of potential commercial partners, writes the necessary proposals, and once approved, work starts with screening for microorganisms and/or enzymes that can give the desired bioconversion.
“We optimise the technology at laboratory scale, including the up- or downstream process for the product to result in the required purity. Scale-up to a measure agreed with the client follows, and a market sample is produced for the client to test and verify. Once we have our technology demonstrator, we decide whether the technology will be patented.”
The rest of her time is spent on the students under her wing working towards their MSc and PhD degrees and other administrative and project-related activities. Steenkamp’s projects span from developing products for the food, flavours and fragrance industries, to cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and veterinary products. Among other clients, she has worked on the formulation of biocides for Biodx (Pty) Ltd. These were registered on 23 June 2021 as the only type 2 and 4 biocides from Africa in the European Union. These types of biocide refer to products used as surface disinfection for food contact and general surface disinfection, respectively.
“These two products have also been tested against Covid-19 and have a kill rate of 99.987% within seconds of application. The commercial partner has already sold ton quantities of the products to different local and international markets.”
Current position: CSIR principal researcher
Career type: Biochemist specialising in biocatalysis
Education: PhD (Biochemistry), University of Johannesburg (former Rand Afrikaans University), 1991