UP Biotechnology Students at John Innes Centre

Posted on June 22, 2011

These visits are sponsored by an award from the British Council through its Education Partnerships in Africa (EPA) programme. The objective has been to develop a training programme that would introduce biotechnology students in South Africa to concepts and working practices that they will need in order to make the transition from the university environment to the world of industry.

This type of programme is designed to help fill an “innovation chasm” of the sort identified by Dr Blessed Okole of South Africa’s Technology Innovation Agency, on a Nature Network blog, which drew praise from Nature’s editor Andrew Marshall.

The students are working in prominent biotechnology laboratories at JIC. Priyen Pillay is working with Prof George Lomonossoff on the production of antigenic viral proteins in plants, using a transient protein expression system recently developed at JIC. Rynhard Smit is working with Dr Michael McArthur on the effects of nucleoid structure on the regulation of secondary metabolism in the antibiotic-producing micro-organism Streptomyces coelicolor. Stefan van Wyk is working on fungal disease resistance with Dr Lesley Boyd characterising a defence-related gene, RNR8, in wheat.

“The JIC is renowned for the research that it delivers, and I have enjoyed the research culture and the atmosphere,” said Stefan van Wyk. “It has been a real learning curve for me, learning expertise that we can’t really do back home. I will take back the lessons and experience I have learned, especially from the Personal and Professional Development courses. We don’t have similar programmes at post-graduate level back in South Africa but they are definitely important for improving yourself.”

Rynhard Smit is gaining valuable experience working with Dr Michael McArthur, who has set up a spin-out company based on his research at the JIC. “It’s been amazing to have this opportunity to develop my research skills as well as skills that are needed in the business world, said Rynhard.

“Working with Michael has allowed me to experience what it takes to go from the academic environment to working with industry, which is what I hope to achieve eventually. In South Africa the gap between industry and academia is too big, which requires certain stepping stones to be put in place to aid the crossover into commercial research and development with much more ease and success.”

Priyen Pillay, who has just started his PhD at the University of Pretoria, said “I like the capacity that you get, such as the links with the University of East Anglia and the links with industry. These are inadequate back in Africa, there is a bit of a gap in the transfer of knowledge and also the development of the skills that you can use in the workplace.”

Previously, in November 2010, these three students were involved in the first-ever Biotechnology Entrepreneurship Workshop that was held at the University of Pretoria. Four scientists from JIC also took part in this workshop in order to act as mentors and to share their experience of the UK Biotechnology YES programme with the student group in South Africa.

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