Wonder Women In Science (WWIS)

A Fascination with the Microscopic Drives Research

This article spotlight falls on Dr Lorika Beukes, a principal microscopy technician at UKZN’s Microscopy and Microanalysis Unit (MMU) where she has worked since 2013.

Beukes began her foray into the sciences with childhood dreams of becoming a veterinarian, progressing from a youngster fascinated with insects and snakes found in her garden to a teenager who relished experimenting with chemical reactions in science, and on to a microbiology student exploring herbal medicinal recipes as a hobby!

Now a microscopist, Beukes says her field is still male-dominated and there are times when women are undermined or have to prove their capabilities. She firmly believes women generally bring a unique set of skills, particularly multi-tasking, to the balancing act of managing a scientific career, excelling in organisation and dedication and with a strong work ethic.

Beukes is fascinated by the major impact the microbial world has on everyday life, not just for the negative, as in the current COVID-19 pandemic, but also for the positive, such as the provision of food and protection against disease-causing microorganisms.

Beukes completed  all her tertiary studies at UKZN, recently receiving her PhD – the first on both sides of her family to achieve this distinction – for a microbiological assessment of pit latrines in a rural community in the eThekwini municipality in KwaZulu-Natal. She worked to detect bacteria resistant to multiple life-saving antibiotics in pit latrine faecal sludge and determined the level of microbial contamination on household surfaces and municipal workers’ skin surfaces before and after manual pit latrine emptying.

‘Given the global threat of antimicrobial resistance, it is important to generate data that verifies the potential risks involved with pit latrine biosolids generated in poor communities,’ she said. ‘My findings highlight an urgent need for education for both municipal workers and household members on personal hygiene, with emphasis on proper hand washing and the correct donning and cleaning of personal protective equipment.”

Beukes highlights that in addition to improving sanitation facilities, there is a need for increased knowledge of proper hygiene to ensure the correct use of these systems. Given the high levels of resistance to critical, last resort antibiotics in bacteria found in pit latrines, she emphasised the need for education around overuse and/or misuse of these life-saving medicines.

Her research, which has been presented at local and international conferences and published in international peer-reviewed journals, forms a baseline for comparison in similar future studies.

At the MMU, Beukes trains students, staff and external clients on analysing their research samples, and collaborates with local and international partners, such as the LAUTECH Nanotechnology Research Group in Nigeria. She also teaches components of the short course in Microscopy and Microanalysis offered to postgraduate students.

Despite the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Beukes has used her time productively to learn new skills, catch up o and experiment with online teaching and learning.

She gives credit for her passion in microbiology to her diligent, hard-working supervisor and mentor Professor Stefan Schmidt, a passionate microbiologist who inspired her career. Motivation to complete her studies came from her late grandmother and her mother, who she said were grounded in their Christian faith and instilled strong morals and values in her. Beukes says rising early in the morning, praying and reading her Bible created a sound routine to carry her through life in which she maintains a strict routine in work and studies. While this involves sacrifice of personal time – which she dedicates a large slice of to her involvement in a children’s ministry programme – she prioritises her weekends for family, friends and religious purposes.

Beukes advises other young female scientists to persevere and work hard to achieve success. While the educational landscape in South Africa has improved in recent decades, as a woman of colour Beukes longs to see more young women, particularly from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, enrol for tertiary studies in the sciences.

Lorika the Super-Microscopist

If she were a superhero, Beukes would use her powers to instantly get rid of all the street drugs in communities that are destroying the lives of young people.

Her theme song would be “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys, and her go-to gadget would be a Do-It-Yourself toolkit and a high speed flying car that could get her through her busy day.

If she was recruiting an “Avengers” team, her sidekicks would be her mother Margaret Beukes, her youngest sister Salomi Beukes and her oldest sister Gail Hagan, the women who have been her greatest support system throughout her career.

When she needed a retreat, you’d find Lorika in a garden filled with rare succulent plants and the finest coffee and chocolate money could buy, treating her own personal “kryptonite” of impatience borne out of her drive to see results, and that of trying to fix everything.

Words: Ms Christine Cuénod and Photography: Mr Sashlin Girraj

To commemorate National Science Week and National Women’s Month, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science is honouring its female scientists through a Wonder Women In Science campaign, highlighting women who are passionate about their fields, who are pioneering innovative research and development, and who are examples to women following in their footsteps towards careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).