Dr Rachel Chikwamba has been an important addition to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and her recent accolades by the Apolitical is widely seen as fitting. Dr Chikwamba is currently CSIR’s group executive for the chemicals, agriculture, and food and health division. She is recognised as of the world’s 50 most influential people navigating disruption.
Dr Chikwamba is among four people recognised in the collaborators category. She has been credited for her leadership in implementing the CSIR’s research, development and innovation strategy in various sectors. She accomplished this by working closely with local and international partners to improve sectoral competitiveness and socio-economic performance through innovation.
Says Dr Chikwamba in reaction to her being recognised: “It is an honour for me to be recognised as one of the 50 most influential people navigating disruption in the ‘collaborators’ category. This recognition is in line with the collaboration value in our CSIR EPIC values and is testament to how we live up to these values. She says the recognition is not just for her but also for the CSIR as a whole because it also highlights the role played by ‘Team CSIR’ and collaborative approach in delivering on their mandate of improving the lives of South Africans. Dr Chikwamba also applauded and acknowledged the support provided by the department of science and innovation (DSI) in our efforts to deliver on our mandate,” she adds.
Apolitical was founded by mission-driven entrepreneurs, backed by impact investors in Asia, Africa, Australasia, Europe and North America and supported by a European Union Horizon 2020 grant. It recognises the contributions of leaders who promotes sound governance and also credits politicians, civil servants, entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs driving agile governments, regulation and policymaking across the globe.
Leading a team of researchers
Before she became a group chief executive Dr Chikwamba has always been a top research scientist. She used to be the research group leader for the plant biotechnology group at CSIR Biosciences. As a leader she headed a team of researchers focusing on three major areas of research:
- metabolic engineering to enhance nutritional quality of crops and the related downstream analyses
- the use of plants and plant cells as bioreactors to produce biomolecules of pharmaceutical and industrial relevance and the
- use of plant cell culture and omics coupled with bioinformatics to elucidate biochemical pathways underlying the production of lead molecules in indigenous plants with medicinal value.
Her specific area of interest is to develop plant biotechnology applications that are relevant to developing agriculture and the pharmaceutical industries in South Africa. As a result she has forged relations and partnerships with a range of international and local research bodies to establish a pipeline of services to help bring locally developed plant biotechnology products onto the market.
Improving banana and maize
Dr Chikwamba is also an adjunct senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria (UP)’s departments of botany and forestry and agricultural biotechnology institute FABI. At the UP, Dr Chikwamba has spearheaded a banana and maize improvement initiative that involves tissue culture, transformation, gene discovery and gene introgression research for these two crops. In addition, she supervises post-graduate students including teaching.
Dr Chikwamba holds a doctorate in genetics from Iowa State University, and her dissertation focused on the production of novel proteins in plants. She also worked as a research associate at the Centre for Infectious Disease and Vaccinology within the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, USA, studying optimisation of expression and assembly of multi-subunit proteins in plants. She is a principal investigator on several locally and internationally funded research articles, has authored several articles in peer reviewed and internationally recognised scientific journals and she also contributed to several book chapters. Furthermore, Dr Chikwamba reviews various internationally recognised journals, and has adjudicated local and international funding organisations.