All (food) systems go!

Posted on September 03, 2021

Dr Jarishma Gokul of UP’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences graduated with a BSc in Genetics and Development, and Microbiology from the University of Cape Town and holds an MSc in Biotechnology from the University of the Western Cape.

She also received a DST-NRF scholarship grant to pursue her PhD in Polar Microbiology and Glaciology at Aberystwyth University, Wales.

Now she has been granted an opportunity by the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa), along with 19 other early-career research fellows from 12 different disciplines, to work on a research project that will meaningfully influence various sections of the African food system. Masego Panyane caught up with Dr Gokul to learn more about the project and her journey as a researcher.

Tell us about your research interests and what the primary focus of your research career has been thus far. 

My research centres on environmental and agricultural microbial ecology and microbiomes that are investigated through DNA sequence analysis and environmental monitoring. Through these approaches, I work towards understanding the micro ecology of different habitats and the influence of biotic and abiotic parameters on these communities. Thus far, I have had spectacular career-building and personal life experiences from my research, including exploring microbial life on both the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets and mountain tops, from the deep Antarctic Ocean, Japanese seas and sub-Antarctic Islands to the water and food we consume, and the land we depend upon to provide the food we need to survive.

What inspired you to enter into this field of study? 

My interest in the sciences started in school, from a love of biology and a fascination with outer space. My inspirational mum would indulge my fascinations with whatever biology-based books and science magazines she and I could get our hands on from the local library. Unfortunately, I grew up in a poor area where schools didn’t have access to lab equipment and reagents to perform experiments, so my curiosity was never quite sated. This is what drove me to be a biologist – I wanted to be able to carry out the experiments that I had only ever read about or saw in pictures in real life, and I continue to harbour that same curiosity to this day.

You have been selected as one of the fellows of the FSNet-Africa research project. What areas will you be looking at? 

This is a two-year structured fellowship that aims to develop and implement quality interdisciplinary research projects related to food systems. My new research focus is the agri microbiome, and the project that will be developed within my research triad – which includes Professor Stefan Kepinski (Leeds University, England) and Dr Reggie Annan (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana) – will be related to the microbiome of fresh produce to aid in understanding and improving plant health and sustainability. In doing so, we can assess the impact of microbiota on fresh, high-quality and safe food production and loss, as well as in the downstream consumption of healthy nutritious food in local and global communities.

What aspect of this project are you most looking forward to?  

In a highly connected and integrated world, the science we do needs to be as connected and integrated as possible. The networking aspect of this fellowship is key to the academic, industry-based and public stakeholders that form the ARUA (African Research Universities Alliance)-UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) FSNet-Africa. I look forward to working alongside some of the great minds in the food systems and security arena as we work towards impacting the quality of food and nutrition for Africa. This opportunity will further inform the research I am doing in microbial ecology and agricultural systems, and will allow me to gain knowledge and transferable skills from some of Africa’s and UK’s leading experts in the field.

What do you hope to achieve via this fellowship?

Through the interdisciplinary research platform offered via this prestigious fellowship, I hope to improve my ability to think differently, think more broadly and work towards addressing the bigger picture on plant and food systems. As such, I would like to gain further insight into areas outside of microbiology and plant pathology, so that I may tailor my research, both now and in the future, to address issues surrounding plant health, food safety, security and loss.

Women researchers often face many challenges. What have been your primary challenges and how have you overcome them?

In my experience, subjects like microbiology and genetics have always had a higher female student cohort since my days as an undergraduate. When I stepped into postgraduate research, however, I found that most of my peers were male, and I was often the only woman of colour in a room, meeting or conference or field season. In fact, my academic mentors were all male, as the generation of “environmental microbiology academics” before me was predominantly male.

That said, I was afforded countless opportunities to both learn and impart knowledge, and was regularly applauded for my research, skills, work ethic, passion and determination. It was unfortunate that I had never had a female mentor, but I now have that privilege through Prof Lise Korsten (of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, Plant Pathology). I am now part of a woman-led, majority female research group, which is something I am very proud of as a woman of colour in South Africa. I feel highly motivated and try to work harder, better and smarter every day, and sincerely acknowledge the importance of being a caring, conscientious and effective role model for the next generation of young scientists.

- Author Masego Panyane

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

COVID-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal

To contact the University during the COVID-19 lockdown, please send an email to [email protected]

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences