University of Pretoria’s Prof Michael Wingfield wins Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award

Posted on July 12, 2022

Professor Mike Wingfield, a professor at the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI), is the recipient of the annual Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award for his research into disease-causing fungi.

The R2 million award recognises scholarship of the highest calibre across various academic and research disciplines, and is ranked as one of Africa’s most prestigious research grants. The flagship award was initiated by the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust in 2000 to commemorate the trust’s founder, Harry Oppenheimer, and his efforts to support human and intellectual development and to advance scholarship. The trust, which dates back to 1958, has become a significant funder of education, arts and culture, and civil society organisations. Over the past five years, disbursements have ranged from R100 million to R130 million annually, with about 60% allocated to higher education. This is part of a sustained effort to build the local academy.

Prof Wingfield’s winning project – titled ‘Quest to unravel the origin and ecology of two human pathogenic fungi and expand the base of medical mycology in South Africa’ – focused on fungi that cause diseases in humans in South Africa and elsewhere in the world.

“This award has come to me in the latter part of my career,” said Prof Wingfield in his acceptance speech. “Perhaps 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 primarily as one of mentorship: to pass on my knowledge and experience to younger scientists, and to share my passion for 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.”

An elated Prof Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UP, said he was thrilled that a UP academic has received this award. “This showcases the strong focus that UP places on research excellence and postgraduate education,” he said. “We are a future-focused university that is strong on transdisciplinary research. Conducting research that makes an impact underpins the University’s strategy. As one of UP’s exceptional researchers, Prof Wingfield is well placed to use this prestigious award to promote research excellence and to mentor young scientists internationally. This will contribute to the next generation of scientists and boost knowledge production.”

Through his project, Prof Wingfield hopes to learn more about where disease-causing fungi live naturally, to better understand them and to avoid the diseases they cause. “One fungus occurs in mines and infects the skin and lymphatic tissues; the other causes a serious pulmonary disease. With regard to mines, it is important to know 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. “We know very little about them, other than from a medical perspective,” he added.

 

Jonathan Oppenheimer and Professor Mike Wingfield 

Another fungus that Prof Wingfield will track is sometimes known for its relationship to roses. “The question is whether this is a fungus found on rose thorns, in rose thorns or whether it is found somewhere else, such as in the soil, and if it is using injuries such as those caused by rose thorns to enter our bodies,” he explained.

His project is expected to have a far-reaching impact on humanity. “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,” Prof Wingfield said. “Take a plant disease – most diseases of plants are caused by fungi. They are a serious threat to food security. They pop up unexpectedly like SARS-CoV-2, many times from unknown sources. We need to know more about where they are and what the long-term threats are. Knowing such things prepares us for a more secure future.”

The project will also enhance collaboration between plant pathologists and the health sciences. South Africa is well known for its strength in mycological research (the study of fungi). “This is mostly because we have a powerful plant pathology community, and most plant diseases are caused by fungi,” Prof Wingfield said. “There is a much smaller community of scientists that consider fungi from the medical perspective and most work at the clinical level. We have a good opportunity to get to know one another better, and to build research bridges and opportunities. I hope to at least explore those opportunities and to get this process started.”

Prof Wingfield has been involved in research projects in many parts of the world, particularly those relating to the health of trees and determining the pathways of movement of the organisms that cause tree disease. Among his accolades are the African Union’s Kwame Kwame Nkrumah Award, the Royal Society of South Africa’s Herschel Medal, and the National Science and Technology Forum’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

He has received honorary doctorates from, among others, North Carolina State University and the University of British Columbia. He is also one of a select number of academics in South Africa included on the Clarivate list of the world’s most highly cited scientists. Prof Wingfield works closely with his wife, Prof Brenda Wingfield, a previous recipient of the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award. They are the first family members to be recognised, which is an additional cause for celebration for this edition of the award.

“Prof Wingfield’s project is a game-changer,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, Chair of the trust, upon presentation of the award. “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.”

 

Published by Mecayla Maseka

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