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Sanushka Naidoo

NEF Fellow 2017-2019

Country: South Africa
Area of Research: Plant Genetics
Institution: University of Pretoria

Sanushka is currently Senior Lecturer in the Department of Genetics at the University of Pretoria and a candidate for Associate Professor. Sanushka is President of the South African Genetics Society (2017-2018) and was awarded a Y-rating by the South African National Research Foundation (2015-2020). Her research is dedicated to plant defense in the forest species, with an emphasis on Eucalyptus. Forest trees are long-lived organisms that are challenged with multiple pests and pathogens in their lifetime. Sanushka is focusing on mechanisms that can confer broad-spectrum, long lasting resistance by dissecting gene families and responses to pests and pathogens. She has adopted genome editing technology (CRISPR) to develop plants with desired traits. With the development of new technologies, novel genetically modified crops are poised to increase yield and protect against pests and pathogens under harsh African climates. Sanushka believes we are better equipped to harness this knowledge to address one of Africa’s biggest challenge- that of food security.

Sanushka was born in a small community outside Durban, South Africa. Her parents were teachers who encouraged her to ask questions about the world around her. She participated in mathematics and science Olympiads through school, and was inspired by her science teacher to initiate a wildlife club. The club built a pond, establishing a complete ecosystem on the school grounds, to facilitate biology lessons. Sanushka participated in a wilderness leadership school organized by the South African National Parks Board. The weeklong hike through the Umfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal cemented her love and curiosity of natural systems and species interactions.

Sanushka’s academic journey began with a Bachelor’s of Science at the University of KwaZulu Natal, where she majored in Environmental and Cell Biology, subsequently specializing in molecular biology for her master’s degree at the University of
Stellenbosch. Her research focused on the expression pattern of a key enzyme in the sucrose pathway in sugarcane. Perseverance and passion culminated in a distinction and the gene was patented. Before continuing on to her PhD, Sanushka worked at the University of Cape Town as a Microarray Scientific Officer. She subsequently received the Mellon Foundation Mentoring Award to complete her PhD degree in Plant Biotechnology at the University of Pretoria receiving the award for best PhD paper, presented by the South African Society of Plant Pathologists.

Sanushka applied for the NEF Fellowship to expand her access to impactful collaboration and deliver next generation thinking with African scientists, social scientists, schools, communities and government leaders. She wishes to facilitate education and acceptance leading to an increased impact of plant biotechnology on society. She believes Africa’s youth should study science, technology, engineering and mathematics to discover robust, tangible, natural patterns. Knowledge of such patterns can be harnessed to address the continent’s unique challenges.

Einstein Challenge: Sanushka hopes to improve understanding and acceptance of plant biotechnology as a means to enhance crops in Africa.