The achievements of women students and academics – often against all odds – took centre stage during the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) commerce graduation ceremony on the afternoon of Friday, 13 December.
Although the theme may not have been intentional, the grace and strength with which women tackle their academic work in tandem with a host of other responsibilities and, in many cases, despite major challenges, ran through the ceremony like a golden thread.
Perhaps the most poignant expressions of this were the various women who walked onto the stage to receive their certificates with a small child on the hip. Another was the young woman in a wheelchair whom Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokghethi Phakeng capped at the foot of the stairs.
Honouring mentorship of women scientists
The scene for these moments was set when 74-year-old UCT alumnus Professor Marlene Belfort was awarded a Doctor of Science (honoris causa). She’s currently a distinguished professor in the departments of Biological Sciences and Biomedical Sciences at the State University of New York at Albany.
Belfort received her honorary doctorate in recognition of her exceptional contributions to the field of molecular genetics, but also for the generous support and mentorship she has offered countless other women scientists, technicians, students and even high school pupils over the years.
During her introduction to Belfort, Professor Alison Lewis, dean of the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment, mentioned English chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin. Despite the central role Franklin’s X-ray crystallography work played in what has come to be known as Francis Crick and James Watson’s discovery of DNA in the 1950s, she was never officially recognised for the achievement. In 1962, Crick and Watson went on to win a Nobel Prize for their work, by which time Franklin had died.
Belfort herself went on to make one of the most ground-breaking discoveries in the field of DNA research. One of the most puzzling revelations about DNA is the fact that only about 2% can be read sensibly. As Lewis explained: “the rest is mostly genetic gibberish”.
“The importance of Belfort’s work has been recognised with numerous awards and honours.”
Until quite recently, it was believed that this so-called ‘junk DNA’ – also called intron DNA – only occurred in complex organisms.
“That is until Marlene Belfort and her research team discovered some in a simple, single-cell bacterium. And the story does not end there,” said Lewis.
“She went on to show that introns were not junk at all, but mobile genetic elements with very important functions.”
Unlike Franklin, the importance of Belfort’s work has been recognised with numerous awards and honours. She has also chaired committees for several leading scientific organisations, published over 190 scientific papers and co-edited two books.
In 1999, she was admitted to the highly prestigious National Academy of Sciences and she’s also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Apart from these academic awards and achievements, Belfort’s career has also been characterised by the dedication of significant energy and resources to the support and development of women in science. She received recognition for this when, in 2002, she won the ASM Alice C Evans Award for her contributions toward the participation and advancement of women in microbiology.
Belfort was also one of two guest speakers at the graduation ceremony – the other being her husband and fellow UCT alumnus, Professor Georges Belfort, who received a Doctor of Science in Engineering (honoris causa) on the same occasion.
In an expression of true synchronicity, the tragic oversight of Franklin’s important work also surfaced in Belfort’s speech. She related how she considered British biophysicist Sir Aaron Klug – who completed his master’s degree at UCT – to be one of her role models. And how he and Franklin had worked together on developing ways to visualise molecules.
“Some years later, [Klug] won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Franklin again lost out,” she said.
“Well, we live in an age now where women don’t need to lose out.”
Loss as opportunity
Belfort concluded her address with an ode to her late mother who was robbed of a high school education after fleeing Nazi Germany and arriving in South Africa in 1936.
“She was my role model. She taught me how to look ahead, how to make each loss into an opportunity. And there were plenty of those,” Belfort recalled.
“As graduands, moving forward, with all the power to succeed, one thing is for sure, you will have losses. We all do in all of our lives. And I want you to think back on the words of my mom: Each loss is an opportunity.”
Fittingly, Belfort’s husband also mentioned his mother who taught him that learning and studying were the root to success.
In a speech imbued with passion for South Africa, Georges encouraged graduands to “think big – just like Einstein, Lincoln and Mandela”.
“You are smart as anyone anywhere and your degree is from a top university. So, you have a major advantage,” he said.
“South Africa has all the wealth and opportunity to build a fabulous career. Step out of the box.
“Congratulations to the graduates. And go for it!”
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