Oppenheimer Generations funds two research chairs at the University of Pretoria

Posted on March 22, 2022

The University of Pretoria (UP) has commemorated two research chairs being funded by the Oppenheimer Generations Research & Conservation and the Benjamin Raymond Oppenheimer Trust (BROT).

The University’s partnership with Nicky, Strilli and Jonathan Oppenheimer to promote underfunded research areas, has resulted in one research chair in non-invasive wildlife research and another in molecular archaeology receiving funding. The launch and celebration of the chairs had to be postponed until recently due to restrictions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Oppenheimer donation agreement for the Oppenheimer Chair for Emerging African Scientists in Non-invasive Wildlife Research was finalised in 2021. It was awarded to Director of UP’s Mammal Research Institute Professor André Ganswindt, the principal investigator. The Chair supports highly motivated postgraduate students from Africa to initiate, coordinate and conduct research that focuses on developing and promoting non-invasive approaches to wildlife research and management.

Funding for the BROT-supported Chair for Molecular Archaeology was granted in 2020, and was awarded to Dr Riaan Rifkin of the Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology in UP’s Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics. In his research, Dr Rifkin will look for evidence of pandemics in the southern African archaeological record.

Speaking at the launch, UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe thanked the Oppenheimer family for supporting research in under-resourced fields.

“The impact of unlocking catalytic grants in underfunded areas such as the two chairs is inestimable,” he said. “We thank you for your support in recognising the value of funding groundbreaking research and conservation efforts through the partnership with UP. It is people like you who contribute to UP becoming the top university it is today, and to our capacity to make a significant contribution to South Africa, our continent and the world.”

From left to right: Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences Dean Professor Barend Erasmus; Chairman of Oppenheimer Generations Nicky Oppenheimer; UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe; Oppenheimer Chair for Emerging African Scientists in Non-invasive Wildlife Research Professor Andre Ganswindt; Dr Duncan MacFayden, Oppenheimer Generations Head of Research and Conservation; and BROT-supported Chair for Molecular Archaeology Dr Riaan Rifkin at the launch of the research chairs.

Professor Barend Erasmus, Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, where the two chairs reside, said this partnership is an example of important steps taken by universities, industry and society in supporting important change.

“The need for interdisciplinarity [has arisen] because of the existential crises that affect humanity,” he said. “These include pandemics, food insecurity, disease and drought. None of these can be addressed by traditional disciplines; they are intersecting problems. That’s why we need these new, interesting value propositions that emerges when academia and society start working together in novel ways, to tackle them. These novel partnerships give not only new perspectives from other sources of knowledge to contribute to the solution, but also due to the size of the problem. It’s not that this particular partnership will change the world, but it is a step in the right direction, so that we can start shifting the needle.”

Dr Duncan MacFadyen, Head of Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation said they were pleased to be in a partnership with UP, and that together we would develop the next generation of African scientists in these fields.

“The Oppenheimers have been funding research for decades and we run various research centres across our properties,” he said. “The kind of research that we fund is key. We look for research that’s innovative, and research that’s new and has practical, impactful outcomes. I really believe that both these chairs and the students that they will train through the years will help us to achieve the goal of leaving the world in a better place than we found it in.”

The Oppenheimer Chair for Emerging African Scientists in Non-invasive Wildlife Research currently supports one MSc, one PhD and one postdoctoral fellow as the first cohort. The envisaged studies will not only help to preserve species and ecosystem diversity and health, and supporting biodiversity stewardship, by generating much-needed information for decision support, but will also distinctively contribute to the much needed professional development of highly skilled, research orientated, young African academics.

The Chair for Molecular Archaeology supports the research of Dr Rifkin and his team. They are looking for evidence of pandemics in the southern African archaeological record, including human remains. This research requires searching for prehistoric or ancient pathogen DNA as this could inform us of the various diseases our African ancestors had. The results of this research hopes to offer new insight into whether pandemics like COVID-19 and the Black Death have occurred before, and how they spread and mutated; this could help us to anticipate potential future threats.

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