Top postgraduate student wins Biotech Fundi Award

Steven Hussey
Steven Hussey

Dr Steven Hussey, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Genetics and the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences was recently awarded a Biotech Fundi Student Award for his PhD research.

The Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD), in partnership with The Innovation Hub, hosted the Annual Biotech Fundi Awards, recognising the biotech community of Gauteng. The awards ceremony brought together various biotechnology role players and stakeholders, with the sole objective of recognising achievements and excellence in the sector.

Dr Hussey was awarded a Biotech Fundi globe trophy, a certificate, a R5 000 cash prize, course attendance and training at DNA biotech to the value of R10 000, as well as a trip to Saskatoon, Canada, in October 2014, to attend the Agricultural Bioscience International Conference.

He recently completed his PhD research in the Department of Genetics and graduated in September this year. Being a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, he was the top student throughout his undergraduate and postgraduate studies in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, passing all undergraduate courses and postgraduate programmes with distinctions (many of the with an average of above 90%). He was also awarded the South African Genetics Society Hofmeyr-Van Schaik Prize for the best fourth-year student in Genetics. His PhD research resulted in three published peer-reviewed papers (one a co-authored paper in the journal oct 16, 2011 – worldwide Nature) and two additional submitted manuscripts in high-impact journals.

His PhD research was presented at five international plant and tree biotechnology conferences. Dr Hussey’s PhD research, which was co-funded by Sappi and Mondi, focused strongly on biotech approaches to manipulating woody biomass traits for pulp, paper and chemical cellulose production in Eucalyptus trees. In part, he identified the gene targets of a transcription factor associated with cellulose biosynthesis during fibre secondary cell wall formation, and showed that its overexpression altered Eucalyptus fibre cell wall properties. This gene has potential application in woody biomass biotechnology, and is currently being assessed in transgenic poplar trees. The vast scale at which Eucalyptus is planted and its importance for the future South African Bio-economy makes this PhD finding highly relevant to the Biotech sector. Dr Hussey also pioneered the application of a cutting-edge genomics technology (ChIP-seq) in field-grown Eucalyptus trees, producing the first genomic profile of a modified histone (H3K4me3) in developing xylem tissue and uncovering a poorly understood level of transcriptional regulation of xylem development in trees. Together, these findings open new avenues for wood biotechnology towards bioenergy and biomaterials production from plant biomass.

Among the 10 UP students who received GDARD bursaries in 2013 Drew Behrens, also from FABI won the top student award. Drew is currently busy with his BSc Honours degree in the FMG group.

At the 2013 awards ceremony, Prof Dave Berger and Dr Eschar Misrachi, both from the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, respectively won the Capacity Builder and Top Student awards.

Story by: Martie Meyer, UP News & Events, University of Pretoria