‘Science is not a solitary journey and collaborations should start from as early as possible.’ These are the words of a PhD student in Medicinal Plant Science in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, Carel Oosthuizen, who was recently awarded the Gauteng Biotech Fundi Postgraduate Award.
The award ceremony took place at the annual Biofundi event hosted by Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD) and The Innovation HUB, in recognition of academic excellence and the most innovative project idea. The award is given to a student, ideally postgraduate, who is involved in or conducting a project that has the potential to become a commercialised innovation in the biotechnology sector.
Mr Oosthuizen was selected for the award for the progress and innovation made possible by his PhD project. He has succeeded in identifying new natural products to target tuberculosis (TB) biofilms, an important step towards the latent treatment of TB infections. This project is a combination of phytomedicine and phytochemistry approaches, together with computational biology. Through computer-aided simulations, he can precisely describe how and why his compounds act the way they do, and possibly lead to the improvement and optimisation of this group of natural compounds as new biofilm quorum quenching molecules.
He was invited to complete part of his postgraduate studies on biofilms and their mechanism at the University of East Anglia in England and the University of Albany in the USA, through a bilateral programme with the Royal Society and the Innovation Doctoral Scholarship which he received from the National Research Foundation.
Mr Oosthuizen has presented his research at three international and four national conferences, where it has sparked great interest. He has published four peer-reviewed articles in top scientific journals and three chapters in books on the use of plants for the treatment of tuberculosis. Together with his supervisor, Prof Namrita Lall, he holds a South African and international patent for the use of a plant extract as an adjuvant treatment for patients suffering from TB.
Commenting on his achievement, an elated Mr Oosthuizen said, ‘It is a great honour and privilege to receive this award. But, it would not have been achievable without the assistance and support of so many people. Supervisors and co-supervisors, fellow postgraduate students, faculty and staff of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, family and friends, mentors from different countries and institutions and even reviewers, they all played a big role in the completion of my project.’
He concluded: ‘When you are curious about science and somebody tells you that curiosity killed the cat, remember that the last part of the quote is “but, satisfaction brought it back to life.”’
In 2017 he also received the prize for the best paper at the annual conference of the Indigenous Plant Usage Forum (IPUF). The title of his paper was ‘Natural coumarins against persistent mycobacterial biofilms’.