Two UP geneticists selected as NEF Fellows

Posted on September 15, 2017


Two brilliant female researchers from the Department of Genetics at the University of Pretoria (UP), Dr Vinet Coetzee and Dr Sanushka Naidoo, made headlines when they were both selected as Next Einstein Forum (NEF) Fellows* from 2017 to 2019.

The NEF is a platform that leverages scientists to solve global challenges by bringing together leading thinkers in science, policy, industry and civil society in Africa. As an initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) and the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the NEF mobilises the brightest minds to look into the most persistent problems through the lens of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), as well as the social sciences.

Dr Vinet Coetzee's love for science and biology were cemented by a high school biology teacher who encouraged learners to become self-reliant and to look beyond the textbook for answers. Coetzee completed her BSc, honours and MSc in genetics at UP. During her honours year, she became interested in human mate choice research, or more generally, research aimed at understanding why we judge people as attractive and healthy. The only problem was that no one in South Africa was doing this type of research, so she approached her supervisor, Prof Jaco Greeff, who convinced Prof Louise Barrett (from Liverpool, UK) to become Coetzee's research supervisor. She completed her master's research on the role of genetic diversity in immune-associated genes on facial appearance, before receiving a bursary from Prof Dave Perrett at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, to complete her PhD under his supervision.

Coetzee's PhD work identified facial adiposity (or facial fatness) as a robust, but understudied cue to health and attractiveness, and also identified specific facial dimensions associated with weight. While working on her master's and PhD, she published five peer-reviewed papers and received several travel awards, including the Experimental Psychology Society Grindley Grant. Coetzee returned to South Africa, where she completed two prestigious postdoctoral fellowships and joined the University of Pretoria, first as a lecturer, then as Senior Lecturer in 2017.

Her research focuses on developing fast, affordable and non-invasive methods to screen children for nutrient deficiencies and inborn conditions by training computer models to recognise the links between physical features and these conditions. Coetzee's team developed a 3D camera that costs one tenth of the price of comparable commercial systems. They are currently using this system to identify the specific facial features associated with Down syndrome in African infants and plan to expand this research to other conditions. The long-term aim of the project is to develop a facial screening tool that can help doctors identify a range of conditions more accurately. This tool will be especially helpful in situations where doctors have insufficient expertise in these conditions and inadequate funds for extensive testing. The 3D camera is also used in the ground-breaking African Longitudinal Facial Appearance and Health (ALFAH) study, which she launched in 2016. The study will test the associations between facial appearance, various health measures (such as hormones, blood pressure, body composition etc) and genetic markers in 4 000 African participants. Coetzee applied for the NEF Fellowship to widen her network of collaborators within Africa, showcase her research to a global audience and help to advance science from Africa.

Coetzee has published 22 papers in peer-reviewed journals, which have been cited over 800 times. In 2015, she was accepted as a member of the Royal Society of South Africa and has since received various awards, including a UP exceptional Young Researcher Award. She was also selected as a finalist for the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) South 32 Emerging Researcher Award in 2016 and 2017.

Dr Sanushka Naidoo is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Genetics. She is President of the South African Genetics Society for 2017/2018 and was awarded a Y-rating by the South African National Research Foundation (2015–2020). 

Her research is dedicated to plant defence in forest species, with an emphasis on Eucalyptus. Forest trees are long-lived organisms that are exposed to multiple pests and pathogens in their lifetime. Dr Naidoo is focusing on mechanisms that can confer broad-spectrum, long-lasting resistance by dissecting gene families and responses to pests and pathogens. She has used genome editing technology (CRISPR) to develop plants with desired traits. With the development of new technologies, novel genetically modified crops are poised to increase yield and protect against pests and pathogens under harsh African climates.

Naidoo believes we are better equipped to harness this knowledge to address one of Africa's biggest challenges – that of food security. Her parents were teachers who encouraged her to ask questions about the world around her. She participated in mathematics and science Olympiads while at school, and was inspired by her science teacher to initiate a wildlife club. The club built a pond, establishing a complete ecosystem on the school grounds, to facilitate biology lessons. Naidoo participated in a wilderness leadership school organised by the South African National Parks Board. The week-long hike through the Umfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal cemented her love and curiosity for natural systems and species interactions.

Naidoo obtained a BSc from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, majoring in environmental and cell biology. She specialised in molecular biology for her master's degree at the University of Stellenbosch. Her research focused on the expression pattern of a key enzyme in the sucrose pathway in sugarcane. Perseverance and passion culminated in a distinction and the gene was patented. Before continuing with her PhD, Naidoo worked at the University of Cape Town as a microarray scientific officer. She subsequently received the Mellon Foundation Mentoring Award to complete her PhD in plant biotechnology at UP, and received the award for best PhD paper, presented by the South African Society of Plant Pathologists. She has published 25 papers in international peer-reviewed journals.

Dr Naidoo applied for the NEF Fellowship to expand her access to impactful collaboration and deliver next-generation thinking with African scientists, social scientists, schools, communities and government leaders. She wishes to facilitate education and acceptance, leading to an increased impact of plant biotechnology on society. She believes Africa's youth should study science, technology, engineering and mathematics to discover robust, tangible, natural patterns. Knowledge of such patterns can be harnessed to address the continent's unique challenges.


*The NEF Fellowship is a two-year programme that recognises Africa's best young scientists and technologists. These top-rated researchers and emerging leaders, at least 40 percent of whom are women, have the opportunity to advance their scientific career by, among other things, presenting their work at unique NEF Spotlight Sessions at NEF Global Gatherings. The NEF Fellows are automatically entered into the NEF Community of Scientists, an exclusive network that offers members opportunities for consulting, grants, research collaborations, speaking opportunities and career mentorship. In return, members participate in national and continental policy formulation, cross-cutting research and innovation activities, lead public engagement around science and technology in Africa, and provide mentorship to early-career scientists and students.



- Author Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences

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