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Does the idea of learning more about very small living things, such as bacteria and fungi, appeal to you? Do you want to work in a relevant and applied field? If you are one of those people who look at a microscope and see infinite possibilities, you may want to join the likes of microbiologist and NSTF-BHP Billiton Award winner Dr Marieka Gryzenhout.
Dr Gryzenhout is a senior lecturer in the Department of Plants and Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS). As she explains, a microbiologist is someone who investigates the growth, characteristics and classification of microbes (a microbe is a microscopic organism, such as a bacterium, virus or fungus. Microbes are so small that you need to use a microscope and special techniques to see them). Dr Gryzenhout’s field of interest in microbiology is mycology. She specialises in those fungi that affect plants, and this links to another field of specialisation, namely plant pathology.
What is the difference between mycology and plant pathology?
According to Dr Gryzenhout, mycology is the scientific study of fungi (the plural of fungus) while plant pathology is the study of plant diseases that are caused by microbes and insects. “Mycology and plant pathology are not synonymous, although they do overlap. A plant pathologist can be thought of as a plant doctor,” she explains. “They need to heal plants and prevent diseases, and work closely with growers, farmers and plantation owners.”
Dr Gryzenhout completed her PhD in Microbiology at the University of Pretoria, and is best known for her contributions to fungal systematics. (Systematics is the science that discovers, describes, and classifies all organisms.) She has an impressive international reputation in mycology, established while she was still a student. She completed all her degrees in a short space of time, all cum laude (a Latin term which means to graduate with honour).
Why choose a career in microbiology or plant pathology?
“At school I was not particularly interested in studying things like mosses and bread mould; when I was doing biology at university we were introduced to microbiology and that peaked my interest,” she explains. “For my postgraduate career I had to choose between microbiology and genetics; Prof Mike Wingfield, the lecturer who presented the mycology course (and also the very first winner of the Individual category of the National Science and Technology Forum Awards in 1998), made mycology come alive and I also worked in his lab. The fungi just caught my attention; they are very different from any other type of microbe. Prof Wingfield also introduced me to plant pathology (more specifically tree pathology), especially the art and importance of it.
Part of Dr Gryzenhout’s research involves the study of fungi that infect and affect plants.
She has used systematics to study the pathological significance, myco-geography and movement, biodiversity, and ecological roles of fungi in plants. The aim of her PhD study was to revise and reclassify certain fungi based on their outward appearance and genetic relatedness, for example. This new family of fungi, the Cryphonectriaceae, includes a number of lethal members that have wreaked havoc on eucalyptus, oak and chestnut trees around the world. The new system of classification and identification serves as the foundation for future work by mycologists.
Winning the NSTF-BHP Billiton TW Kambule Award
In 2013, Dr Gryzenhout won the NSTF-BHP Billiton TW Kambule Award, an award that recognises outstanding contributions to science, engineering, technology and innovation (SETI) through research and its outputs over a period of up to six years after award of a PhD or equivalent in research. The award is sponsored by by the National Research Foundation.
“The award serves to prove that my type of research is truly relevant,” says Dr Gryzenhout. “It was an honour just to be chosen as a finalist, even more so to win it. The award confirms the importance of fungi and plant pathogens, their presence in various biological systems and the importance of identifying and categorising significant plant pathogens and other fungi to enable easier access for users of these names.”
More prizes for Dr Gryzenhout
Career opportunities for microbiologists and plant pathologists
According to Dr Gryzenhout, microbiologists have lots of different opportunities in the research and development field. Plant pathology is an equally wide field with diverse focus areas, and it is very relevant to enhance crop and food security. “With fungal systematics you can find work in quarantine, where you make sure that imported or exported foods do not contain hazardous organisms. The development of diagnostic tools is of great help in agriculture and forestry,” she says. “A career in academia as a university-level researcher and lecturer is another avenue that can be pursued. Globally there are many opportunities, it is just a matter of being able to link a good applied question related to systematics.”
According to Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the UFS, Dr Gryzenhout represents one of a growing group of very impressive young scientists at the university who are emerging as leading international scholars in their fields.
“Her international leadership in mycology research has already made significant impacts on the African continent and beyond. The UFS will continue to invest in these young academic stars through its Prestige Scholars Programme, where scholars like Dr Gryzenhout are increasingly well-placed to be the next generation of scientific leaders in the world.”