DSI, NRF-SAIAB Launch Cutting-edge Marine Science Laboratory at WSU

DSI, NRF-SAIAB Launch Cutting-edge Marine Science Laboratory at WSU

On 24 January 2024, the Joint Marine Laboratories Programme (JML), funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and the National Research Foundation (NRF), reached its ultimate milestone at Walter Sisulu University’s (WSU) Mthatha campus where the partners launched the Rural Coastal Sustainability Laboratory.

This is the fourth state-of-the-art marine research laboratory that the JML set out to provide to four historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs). These are WSU, University of Zululand (UNIZULU), University of Western the Cape (UWC) and University of Fort Hare (UFH). Launches at the three other institutions happened in 2022 and 2023.

The laboratories are located inside the universities’ science campuses and each tackles specialised research to address key challenges faced by South Africans and the world such as marine pollution and contribute to societal outcomes such as those set by the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development such as “A Clean Ocean” (SDGs 6, 13 and 14). The WSU laboratory will focus on coastal livelihoods research, while Unizulu’s specialises in marine and estuarine ecotoxicology (read more here), the UWC laboratory focuses on micro plastics research (read more here) while the UFH laboratory looks into unlocking marine resources that might be effective against some common diseases, for example diabetes and cancer, for the pharmaceutical economy (read more here). The four institutions are effectively JML partners that will collaborate for the research and training of marine science students.

A five-year initiative implemented through the NRF’s South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (NRF-SAIAB), the JML is intended to bolster marine science research at the four HDIs. It is linked to the NRF-SAIAB African Coelacanth Ecosystem (ACEP) Phuhlisa Programme, a decade-old strategic development initiative that aims to accelerate transformation in the marine science research community.

Professor Elphina Cishe, WSU’s Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic Affairs and Research, pointed out that their laboratory will address food security and adaptation to climate change. “This (laboratory) is in line with our vision of being an impactful, technology-infused African university,” she told the attendees at launch event.

“We see this initiative as an attempt to deal with challenges faced by rural communities. Challenges may not be the same in the four partners’ communities, but the major challenge that affects all of us is food security. We know that, according to the World Health Organisation, South Africa is said to be a food secure country, but when you look on the ground, we’re food insecure. In our context, I have no doubt that across all four of us (the common challenge) is food security, which is coupled with adaptation to climate conditions. Food security will be tackled through experimental studies on factors influencing the reproduction, life history and growth of different species under culture conditions.”

Adaptation to climate change will be achieved through stress response experiments to detect the survival abilities of different marine species under projected seawater condition changes. Known as ecophysiology, the experiments will enable WSU to select the most resistant species as sentinel for environmental change monitoring programs along the Wild Coast.

Dr Albert Chakona, Acting Managing Director at NRF-SAIAB, said “The WSU JML launch is a culmination of a vision and discussions held in 2020. It was at the NRF-SAIAB 50th anniversary that a dream was born, which was to establish joint marine labs at the four universities that are part of this programme.

“The overall mission of JML is to bridge the resource gap and create opportunities for success by providing innovative solutions and the establishment of modern and cutting-edge state-of-the-art research platforms at these universities, and we’re gathered four years later to witness the fulfilment of this dream as the four labs have been fully constructed and launched. What started as an idea and visionary initiative has blossomed into a thriving community, united by the collective passion in education to push the boundaries of knowledge and drive innovation and particularly promoting inclusivity in the academic landscape,” Dr Chakona added.

Mr Imraan Patel, the DSI’s Deputy Director General: Research Development Support, told the launch event the JML was evidence of South Africa’s commitment to ocean economy and research for sustainable marine life. “At the national level, the ocean economy became an issue about a decade ago through Operation Phakisa. Clearly there’s a greater recognition of the importance of our marine regions and resources. It’s an acknowledgment of that importance and I’m glad to see that WSU is taking its place in the broader family of South African institutions, both universities and other institutions, that will help us advance and take advantage of our marine resources. It also comes at the start of the UN’s decade of oceans research. I hope that the colleagues who are running this lab will contribute, using this facility and other initiatives, to enhance the profile of marine research.”

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