UP researchers awarded year-long fellowship with the University of Oxford

Posted on November 28, 2023

Two academics from the University of Pretoria (UP) have been selected to be part of the Visiting Fellowship Programme facilitated by the Africa Oxford Initiative, a cross-university platform that enables collaborations between researchers at African institutions and those at the University of Oxford. The fellowship programme gives exceptional African researchers the opportunity to work on a project of their choice with Oxford-based researchers.

Biochemist Dr Phanankosi Moyo, a postdoctoral fellow at UP’s Biodiscovery Centre in the Department of Chemistry, and economist Dr Carolyn Chisadza, a senior lecturer in UP’s Department of Economics, will be affiliated with the University of Oxford for a year, during which time they will participate in 10 months of virtual engagement and spend two months at the English university.

“I’m honoured to be awarded this fellowship, as it will enhance my research profile by affording me the opportunity to network with my peers, which is essential to my development as an academic,” Dr Chisadza says. “I’m also looking forward to two months of sabbatical when I can focus on my research without having to be concerned with administrative and teaching responsibilities. I think that’s any academic’s dream – well, it’s definitely my dream!”

Biochemist Dr Phanankosi Moyo

Biochemist Dr Phanankosi Moyo, a postdoctoral fellow at UP’s Biodiscovery Centre in the Department of Chemistry.

“Being a recipient of this fellowship is a great honour and privilege,” Dr Moyo says. “It is an opportunity to engage with leading scholars and it gives me access to state-of-the-art resources. I’d like to express my profound gratitude to the Africa Oxford Initiative and UP for this invaluable opportunity. I’m particularly indebted to my postdoctoral supervisor, Professor Vinesh Maharaj, and our collaborators. This fellowship is a personal motivator for me to continue working towards achieving my personal advancement as an aspiring academic and researcher within the drug discovery field.”

Dr Moyo’s project is set to commence on 1 December this year. Part of his research will be conducted at UP’s Biodiscovery Centre under the supervision of Prof Maharaj, and during his two-month stint in Oxford, he will be working in the laboratory of Prof Christopher Schofield at the Ineos Oxford Institute for Antimicrobial Research.

Research on the ‘Nurturing power of nature’

“Our goal is to contribute towards the development of novel drug-resistance-reversal solutions against antibiotic-resistant bacteria within the given timeframe,” Dr Moyo says.

His Oxford-affiliated research project – titled ‘Nurturing power of nature: Inhibition of metallo-β-lactamases by plant-derived natural products of South African origin’ – will investigate the ability of natural compounds isolated from different South African plants to inhibit metallo-β-lactamase enzymes. These enzymes are produced by bacteria to resist the effects of β-lactam antibiotics such as penicillin. To reverse the resistance, β-lactamase inhibitors, which block enzyme activity, are combined with β-lactam antibiotics to preserve the clinical efficacy of antibiotics.

“However, there is no clinically approved combination that is active against metallo-β-lactamase enzymes,” Dr Moyo explains. “This enzyme class is responsible for conferring resistance to a wide range of β-lactam antibiotics, including the prolific carbapenems class, which are effective against a broad spectrum of bacteria. By exploring the ‘nurturing power of nature’, we hope to identify potential ‘hit’ compounds that can be developed into new metallo-β-lactamase inhibitors.”

Dr Chisadza’s project begins in January 2024, and will examine the interlinked dynamics between conflict, peacekeeping and sexual violence in Africa.

Among other objectives, her research aims to establish the aggressors of sexual violence during armed conflicts, in the context of both state and non-state conflicts; establish an association between peacekeeping interventions and sexual violence prevalence during armed conflicts; and examine local factors that may be associated with sexual violence during armed conflicts, such as resource availability, population dynamics and income.

Accelerating progress towards achieving SDGs

“In the given time, my collaborators – Prof Romuald Méango of the University of Oxford and Prof Matthew Clance of UP – and I hope to complete the analysis involved in the study and present the findings at various events for peer review,” Dr Chisadza says. “In pursuing this research, we hope that the findings will at least serve as a platform for pathways of change and bring awareness to the dynamics involved in conflicts.”

Economist Dr Carolyn Chisadza

Economist Dr Carolyn Chisadza, a senior lecturer in UP’s Department of Economics.

All Africa Oxford Initiative programmes seek to enable researchers to “co-design research and co-develop skills” to accelerate progress towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Antimicrobial drug resistance represents one of the major global health threats that are undermining efforts to achieve targets for SDG 3, Good Health and Well-Being,” Dr Moyo explains. “By exploring natural products as potential sources for new compounds that can reverse resistance to antibiotics, the project aims to combat antibiotic resistance, a global health challenge.”

Additionally, the research aligns with SDG 15, Life on Land, as it involves the sustainable use of South African plant resources in drug discovery.

“Policy recommendations should be carefully considered given the nature of conflicts if we want to come close to meeting SDG 16,” Dr Chisadza says, “which advocates to ‘promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’.”

Establishing strong connections through collaboration

The Visiting Fellowship Programme in particular is designed to build long-term international partnerships, which often lead to significant research outcomes, joint publications and substantial funding. This ties in with UP’s internationalisation aims as outlined in its Strategic Plan: Destination 2026 and Beyond. Developing the practice of co-production of research is a priority for the University, which places emphasis on pursuing research that transforms lives and communities, and addresses complex societal challenges. Sustaining key international partners and knowledge networks to strengthen its research capacity is thus a significant aspect of UP’s internationalisation agenda.

“This fellowship contributes towards UP establishing strong connections with a prestigious institution like the University of Oxford,” Dr Moyo says. “The collaboration will enhance UP’s global visibility, foster academic exchange and position the University as a hub for cutting-edge research on an international scale.”

For Dr Chisadza, establishing a network with the University of Oxford will not only involve a transfer of knowledge and skills between researchers, but will have various other benefits.

“There could be collaboration in teaching,” she says. “We could conduct virtual or in-person guest lectures to University of Oxford students, with a focus on Africa. These lectures can go both ways, with Oxford presenting to UP students. We could also consider a student exchange programme at postgraduate level.”

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