A toast to women in Science

Friday, August 31, 2018

When one has to make a simple decision on which wine to have with tonight’s dinner - our vocab generally stretches as far as “red” or “white.”  And words such as “Enology” and “Viticulture” surely are hardly a part of that equation. Or for some, these really big words may not even feature in our vocab at all – choosing rather to just sip on our wine and enjoy the moment.

Enter - Dr Evodia Setati – who for unlike most of us, words like “Enology” and “Viticulture” are a natural part of her daily vocab. Enology – the study of wine and wine making; and Viticulture, the science of grape growing, are a natural feature in her daily life. When Dr Setati completed her matric at Khaiso High School in Seshego township, more than two decades ago, she never imagined she would one day possess a Biochemistry Doctorate, let alone beregarded as one of the country’s leading wine-makers.

A senior researcher at the University of Stellenbosch's Viticulture and Oenology Department, Setati has been a recipient of numerous awards in the field of wine biotechnology. Last week, this academic was announced as the winner of the Distinguished Women Scientists award at this year’s South African Women in Science Awards, held in Polokwane.

The annual event is organised by the Department of Science and Technology and honours young and experienced women in the fields of science and technology. Setati won the award for her work on the microbial ecology of the vineyard and wine fermentation ecosystem and how this is influenced by farming practices. Her research contributed to an improved understanding of the South African vineyard and wine fermentation microbiome and its possible contribution to wine chemical and sensorial properties.

The winners, runners-up and fellowship awardees received bursaries and cash prizes ranging between R30 000 and R80 000.

There’s an unavoidable spark in Setati’s eye as she reminisces about her journey in natural sciences. As a young girl growing up in Limpopo, she never imagined she would one day be a nationally celebrated academic.

After completing high school, career choices at her disposal were narrow due to limited guidance and opportunities available at rural schools. She had initially planned to enrol in medical studies, however, her final grades were not enough for her to be accepted.

Undeterred, she then mustered a plan to obtain a Bachelor of Science and subsequently navigated her way to her first preference – medicine. But when the research bug bit her, there was no letting go.

Setati went on to obtain her Sociology and Microbiology undergraduate and honours degree at the University of Limpopo’s Sociology and Microbiology department. She then proceeded to the Stellenbosch University to pursue her Master’s and Doctoral degrees.

“When I matriculated, I actually didn’t know much about microbiology. I discovered microbiology and that was the end of medicine,” she says.

Her curious nature and new-found fascination with micro-organisms, she says, had gotten the better of her and convinced her to commit to a life in microbiology. A decision she probably toasts to everyday.

“You don’t normally see [micro-organisms] with the naked eye; you look under the microscope and go like: ‘oh, wow that’s a lot of things happening in here’,” she says.

Over the past two decades, Setati has worked in different fields as a microbiologist but, she has always been engaged in microbial ecology and micro-organisms in different environments and learning what they do. Every day, for hours, she toils between grape vineyards and wine cellars of the Western Cape enhancing research methodology and studying results.

“I start with the soil and then the fermentation itself. You have to understand the science behind it to make sure that you have healthy grapevines that produce good, quality grapes to be able to make good quality wine. It is also understanding the micro-organisms and the biochemical processes that they modulate to be able to produce good quality wine,” Setati explains.

As an accomplished scientist, Setati does not only want to make an impact on society but is determined to help others do so too. During this Women’s Month, Setati has been using her journey to encourage young women around her to strive for excellence.

“I am surrounded by a group of young women who look up to me and often want to engage in discussions about how I seem to walk through this journey and make it seem so effortless. I engage a lot with them trying to understand their challenges and how to rise above them,” she says. She described herself as a person who doesn’t like to be in the limelight.

“I am pushed by those women to step up and put myself as a champion and a leader and role-model for young women. That is what it represents for them so they too can get there, even if it’s not in this field.”

“I always tell young women that they should never be ashamed, embarrassed and never be afraid to ask for help. I’ve seen many angels in this world that support people that come from very poor backgrounds and are willing to pay their tuition at university.

“If you are sitting there and not crying, no one will hear your pain. No one will notice. Never be ashamed. Most people are held back by shame or fear,” says Setati, adding that she gets inspired by young women who are go-getters.

One such woman is Food Technology Master’s Degree student at the Tshwane University of Technology, Kgothatso Tlhapi, who was named as one of the three recipients of the DST-Albertina Sisulu Master’s Fellowship.

Expressing delight at receiving the fellowship, the aspiring research professor said the money that accompanied the sponsorship would go a long way in assisting her complete her studies. 

“I am working on mango oil and one of the challenges is that I have to wait for mango season to get the oil and continue with my studies. Another challenge is that the standard chemical oils that I use for the oil are quite pricey. The finances that come with this award will assist me in obtaining such chemicals,” says the Mamelodi-born Tlapi.

The decision to embark on a degree in food technology was triggered by her passion for indulging in a variety of cuisines.

“So I wanted to understand the science and chemistry behind it,” she says.

Tlapi is currently engrossed by her research that is focused on the extraction of oil from mango kernels which are normally used in the cosmetics industry.

As a food technologist, Tlapi wants to apply the oil in a food product to see what effect it will have. She is hopeful of completing her studies before the end of 2018.

According to the University of Stellenbosch, Dr Setati is a member of the South African Society of Microbiology as well as the South African Society for Enology and Viticulture, a commissioner on the International Commission for Yeasts, a trustee on the Pioneer Foods Education and Community Trust, and a sub-editor on the South African Journal for Enology and Viticulture.