Dr Agil Katumanyane is a member of the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in Plant Health Biotechnology and the Tree Protection Co-operative Programme at the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria, a post-graduate research initiative, established in 1997, in recognition of the future of forestry and agriculture in South Africa (SA) and its dependence on new and emerging technologies.
The young Dr Katumanyane has published many papers on various aspects of her PhD research such as findings on entomopathogenic nematodes (EPN’s) in SA and its potential to be used as biocontrol agents against white grubs in forestry plantations across the country.
Dr Katumanyane, her team and co-authors, built their research on previous findings for native EPNs and their symbiotic bacteria found in local plantations and indigenous forests.
Research on soil pests in forestry plantations
White grubs are the most important insect pests in Sugarcane plantations and are some of the most damaging soil pests in forestry plantations, in SA. White grubs are beneficial to soil health on the one hand, but on the other they can sporadically damage or kill tree seedlings after planting, increasing plantation re-establishment costs and reducing productivity.
While EPNs had previously been successfully used to control these in other countries, researchers cited limitations and it was because of the limitations that Dr Katumanyane decided to further delve into the problem. More still, local EPNs are expected to be well adapted to controlling local pests and such potential and how to optimize it, need t to be determined through a series of both laboratory and field experiments.
She said that her previous experience with EPN’s was during her MSc at Stellenbosch University while researching the use of EPN’s as biocontrol agents for fungus gnat pests in greenhouse and nursery bed crops in SA. During this study, the locally isolated EPN, Steinernema yirgalemense, showed promising potential during field trials, performed in a commercial cucumber greenhouse.
In 2021, Dr Katumanyane received the prestigious global L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award for Sub-Saharan Africa Young Talents. The Foundation annually awards 20 young African women scientists for research excellence. Winners came from 17 countries and included a wide range of research topics. She received the award on in Kigali, Rwanda, in front of a high-level audience from across Africa, including representatives from scientific and public organisations, intellectuals, opinion leaders and organizations promoting gender equality.
Q1: Dr Katumanyane, what led to your interest in this specific field?
My curiosity in agricultural sciences started from a very young age. I grew up on a small farm and naturally questioned why bees would visit the new coffee blooms and we only transplanted in the evenings. My father would encourage me to study science to find out the reasons. Since then, I just naturally gravitated towards biology and agriculture.
Q2: Please explain the scope of the problem with soil pests, such as white grub, in SA
Soil pests are in most cases silent killers. Without expertise, many growers will only notice when the damage has reached economic levels. As with the case for white grubs, they are naturally protected by the soil, thus making their control using conventional measures difficult. Normally and in health ecosystems, soil pests are naturally regulated by natural enemies. However, intervention is necessary when pest populations build such as in the case in many conventional monocropping systems.
Q3: When was the research on which you built, first undertaken in SA?
Research in the isolation and description of EPN’s and their potential application is fairly recent. It started in the early 2000’s and was mostly centred at Stellenbosch University. Recently, other Universities are picking up. At FABI, the first research on EPN’s was done by a PhD student in 2016 and we have been building on since then.
Q4: Can these pests be sustainably controlled by the EPN’s? As I understand it, it was possible to do so in the laboratory/greenhouse environment.
Yes, I believe that they can definitely be sustainably controlled by EPN’s. While laboratory results do not always translate to field results, we can always count on the fact that elsewhere in the world, EPN’s have been used successfully in the field. But also, for the fact that EPN’s have already given us great results in our laboratory and green house trials.
Q5: On your journey, who would you say, supported and mentored you to achieve your goals?
Oh goodness, the whole village. Everyone in their own way. Even waiting patiently is a form of support. I have had an incredible village around me. Socially, it’s been my family and friends. Academically, and I say this in the humblest way, my supervisors have been my second parents. Everywhere I have been, I have had selfless, supportive and mentoring supervisors that have exposed me to the potential I never knew I had.
Q6: Which subjects were your favourites at school and why?
My favourite subjects at school were agriculture and biology. I just naturally related to them and found them easy to understand. To this end, I also credit my father who always encouraged me, providing reading materials and a nurturing environment.
Q7: Young, dedicated women such as you, with a clear vision of their future, do have to make many sacrifices. Do you agree and what are these?
Right. A few times too many, I have heard the question, “but when are you going to begin living your life?”. I find this question true and false. True, because I have sacrificed certain societal expectations for specific social achievements by a certain age. False, because personally, it’s rather a question of choice. I chose to pursue what I loved and what I was good at and by doing that I denied myself all the other good things.
Q8: You are a recipient of the prestigious global L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Award. What did that mean to you and did it open other opportunities for you?
Receiving this award was an honour. It was enriching in many ways. It meant exposure and recognition for my work through networking, attending conferences, media appearances etc. I hope that other young female researchers can get the nudge to explore such opportunities.
Q9: You have obviously networked with other researchers and seen their work. How does being a SA female scientist compare to a global scenario?
Surprisingly, wonderful. We have world class research laboratories and the human capital for it. This can be seen in the quality of research coming out of South Africa in peer reviewed journals and this represents equally well on the percent of female researchers in SA.
Q10: What is your advice to young women wishing to follow in your footsteps?
Firstly, I would wish for young women to allow themselves to dream, to believe in their potential and to work hard on their goals. For a successful career in the natural science, it is important to be passionate about what you do. When you are passionate it becomes easier to put in the time and the hard work which it is all about, dedication and sacrifice. It is also important to identify mentors. These could be family, friends and colleagues at work or even unknown persons that share passions. Mentors play a big role when it comes to pacing ourselves in career growth.