African Laureats L'Oréal-UNESCO Programme

Every year, the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science select a laureate from five regions of the world, including the region of Africa and the Arab States. Below is a brief summary of the work of the laureates from Africa since 2003. Where there is no laureate for a given year, this means that the laureate for Africa and the Arab States originated from a country beyond the African continent.

Karimat El-Sayed (Egypt, 2003) is professor of solid state physics at Ain Shams University, Cairo. She has specialized in the detection of impurities in materials relevant to industrial metallurgy and semi-conducting materials.

Jennifer Thomson (South Africa, 2004) of the University of Cape Town in South Africa develops transgenic plants which are resistant to viral infections, drought and other risks. Prof. Thomson’s research team has developed an experimental variety of transgenic maize resistant to the Maize Streak Virus, a disease which has devastating effects on smallholder agriculture in parts of Africa where maize is the staple food and livestock forage crop. Prof.Thomson and her colleagues have worked on a project to engineer transgenic agricultural crops with a high tolerance to drought and other stresses, such as high salinity and heat.

For Zohra Ben Lakhdar (Tunisia, 2005), ‘Light is the messenger of the Universe’. Professor of Physics at the University of Tunis, she is a founding member of the Tunisian Physics, Optical and Astronomy Societies and a member of the Islamic Academy of Sciences. ‘Light informs us about the state of matter throughout the Universe and even about the Universe’s past,’ she says. Prof. Ben Lakhdar analyses bodies according to the spectrum of light they emit or absorb. At the interface between physics and chemistry, her research in atomic and molecular physics is an important starting point for potential applications in astrophysics, agriculture, medi­cine, pharmaceuticals and the chemical industry. She has developed advanced theoretical and experimental spectroscopic methods of studying the influ­ence of pollutants, such as meth­ane and metals, on the quality of air, water and plants. German physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787–1826) was the first to demonstrate that the light emitted by a body was characteristic of the nature of that body and thus represented its ‘signature’. By studying the spectrum of light, we can determine the composition of distant matter like the stars. Much later, Alfred Kastler (France, 1902–1984) would demonstrate that light falling on an atom in a particular state could be amplified by that atom through a chain reaction. This would give us the laser. The most common type of laser in the home is probably the CD or DVD player. The pheno-menon of laser-type light ampli­fication was later observed in nature, in interstellar space. One of Prof. Ben Lakhdar’s most important accomplishments is to have calculated the conditions under which this laser effect would manifest itself in space matter. ‘Manned space explo­ration has stopped’, she says, ‘whereas research into the atom is continuing at full speed. It is where our future knowledge of the Universe lies’.

Habiba Bouhamed Chaabouni (Tunisia, 2006) is a clinical geneticist from the University of Tunis. She was recompensed for her contribution to the analysis and prevention of hereditary disorders.

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim (Mauritius, 2007) is Professor of Organic Chemistry and Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Mauritius. She made the first-ever full inventory of the medicinal and aromatic plants on Mauritius and neighbouring Rodriguez Island. Prof. Gurib-Fakim and her team have also studied a bitter melon (Momordica charantia) and other medicinal plants which act as starch blockers, slowing the release of free glucose into the bloodstream, for their potential in treating diabetes (mellitus). Prof. Gurib-Fakim is a founding member of the Association for African Medicinal Plants Standards, which aims to bring plant remedies that meet international standards to the world market.

Tebello Nyokong (South Africa, 2009) is Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Nanotechnology at Rhodes University in South Africa. She was recompensed for her work on harnessing light for cancer therapy and environmental remediation. In an interview given to the UNESCO Courier in January 2011, she explained that,‘as chemists, we are designers. My research deals with the development of drugs from compounds called phtalocyanines. We call them dyes because their molecules are similar to those of dyes you use to colour jeans blue. These dyes are used to treat cancer via a process called photo-dynamic therapy (PDT).’ PDT is not new but the drugs being developed by Professor Nyokong’s team are. The approach is multidisciplinary, with chemists, biologists and biotechnologists all working together. The team is making molecules that are cancer-specific, so that they will not attack healthy tissue. ‘With my own drugs, you need very small quantities in order to absorb light,’ she explains. ‘I have gone much further than my peers because I am now combining my drugs with drug delivery, which has never been done before. This is the nanotechnology aspect. The molecules have nanomaterials called quantum dots attached to them that can penetrate any part of the body very easily. They are good at drug delivery and, secondly, they give off light, enabling us to see more easily where the cancer is located.’ The nanoparticles her team has developed can kill bacteria, making them useful for environmental remediation. ‘You expect bacteria to be killed by light,’ she says. ‘But if you put the nanoparticles we have developed in the water, they accelerate the process and the end products are less toxic. If you purify water solely with biological means using the sun, the bacteria can form molecules that are more harmful to the body than the original ones you set out to kill. By using our drug, combined with light, we have managed to make nanoparticles that are no longer toxic at all to human beings.’ She has patented this process.

Rashika El Ridi (Egypt, 2010) from the Faculty of Sciences at Cairo University was rewarded for paving the way towards the development of a vaccine against the tropical parasitic disease schistosomiasis, which affects over 200 million people. Schistosomiasis is the second-most devastating epidemic in the world after malaria, with 280 000 deaths a year. It is found mainly in sub-Saharan Africa (85% of cases), Asia and Latin America. Professor El Ridi has helped reveal how the schistosome parasite survives in the lungs and why it is so hard for the immune system to eliminate it. Most importantly, she has demonstrated how the immune system reacts strongly to several substances secreted by the parasite, which it uses to protect the body from new infections.

Jill Farrant (South Africa, 2012) holds the Research Chair in Plant Molecular Physiology at the University of Cape Town. She was recompensed for discovering how plants survive under dry conditions. Prof. Farrant is the world’s leading expert on resurrection plants, which ‘come back to life’ from a desiccated, seemingly dead state when given water. Her team’s ultimate goal is to develop drought-tolerant crops to nourish populations in arid, drought-prone climates, notably in Africa. Her research may also have medicinal applications.

Francisca Nneka Okeke (Nigeria, 2013) is Professor of Physics at the at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, where she studies a world situated between 50 km and 1 000 km above the Earth’s surface, the ionsphere, which is a very thick layer of charged particles. When these ions move about in the Earth’s magnetic field, current is induced as dynamo, which produces changes in the magnetic field on the Earth’s surface. Prof. Okeke’s research has resulted in new discoveries about the part of the ionosphere located above the equator, including the equatorial electrojet phenomenon. Energized by the sun, the electrojet is a river of electrical current that traverses the globe eastward around the dip equator and causes the magnetic field at the dip equator to vary almost five times more than anywhere else on the planet. The dip equator differs from the equator by a few degrees, as the Earth's magnetic north pole – that on compasses – deviates from what we generally think of as the north pole. Prof. Okeke’s research on how such solar activity in the ionosphere affects the Earth’s magnetic field could lead to a better understanding of climate change and help pinpoint sources of phenomena such as tsunamis and earthquakes.

Back to top