For the third time in her academic career as a chemist, Dr Katherine de Villiers (39) has been honoured by the South African Chemical Institute (SACI) for her outstanding contribution to research in this field.
Dr De Villiers, a senior lecturer in bioinorganic chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at Stellenbosch University (SU), is the recipient of the 2021 Raikes’ Medal of the SA Chemical Institute. The gold-plated medal, together with a monetary prize of R2500, is awarded annually to a member of the institute, under the age of 40, whose original chemical research shows outstanding promise.
However, as a postgraduate student in chemistry and the University of Cape Town, she was also the recipient of the SACI James Moir Medal for the best BScHonours student in chemistry in 2004, and in 2008 she received the SACI Postgraduate Medal for her PhD thesis, which she completed at the age of 26 under the guidance of Prof Timothy Egan. She joined SU’s Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science in 2009 as a lecturer, and was promoted to senior lecturer in 2013.
Dr De Villiers works in the field of bioinorganic chemistry, and in particular the rational development of antimalarial drugs to target the asexual blood stage of the malaria parasite lifecycle. Having grown up in Zimbabwe, she witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of malaria: “When I learned as an Honours student that my passion for chemistry could make a contribution to transforming the lives of people at risk of this parasitic disease, I knew I had found my path,” she writes in a blog for the National Research Foundation recently.
As she recently become the mother of two, Christopher (4) and Caroline (2), she has opted to put her career path on a slower trajectory by giving up her full-time position for a five/eights post: “While I know my career progress will not be as fast as it could have been, if I remained in a full-time position, I believe this option gives me the time and space to separate my work and home life. I love my work and look forward to my time in office each day, but I also want to play an active role in my children’s lives.”
Prof Peter Mallon, head of the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science, says this is an outstanding achievement. Previous recipients of this award currently working in the department include Prof Willem van Otterlo (2004), Prof Erick Strauss (2013) and Prof André de Villiers (2015).