Ofentse Mathibela, an honours student in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, recently received the award for best poster in the Physiology/ Ecophysiology/ Biotechnology category at the 45th annual congress of the South African Association of Botanists held in early January. This year’s congress was a joint affiliation with the African Mycological Association and the Southern African Society for Systematic Biology.
“It is a great honour to see my work being recognised in the science community,” an elated Mathibela says. “Honours studies are usually viewed as a foundation in one’s research career, and this award serves as an inspiration for me to continue working towards achieving my goals.
Mathibela's studies focused on characterising Bowman-Birk Inhibitors (BBI) in transgenic Arabidopsis thaliana – a flowering plant widely used as a model organism, which is studied to understand particular biological phenomena – under drought and high saline conditions. BBIs are serine protease inhibitors that act as defence enzymes against biotic stress, which is caused by living organisms. “But there is a lack of characterisation of BBI involvement in the tolerance of abiotic stress [which is caused by naturally occurring factors],” Mathibela explains. “The characterisation of BBIs provides a foundation for abiotic stress improvement in economically important crops such as soy beans, which could be beneficial in the agricultural sector.”
Mathibela owes much of her success as a young scientist to her mentors. As a mentee in UP’s Centre of Excellence in Tree Health Biotechnology mentorship programme in 2016, she had the opportunity to work alongside a postgraduate student in a laboratory setting. “My mentor’s experience greatly influenced my perception of research and a future career in science,” Mathibela says. “It took a group of extraordinary people to shape me into the young scientist that I am today. I’d also like to thank my supervisor, Dr Eugene Makgopa, for his sterling mentoring throughout the year.”