The first in a series of discussions with the wider community, hosted by Vice-Chancellor Professor Njabulo Ndebele, kicked off with an address on the contentious subject of genetically modified crops by Professor Jennifer Thomson in the Senate Room at Bremner last Tuesday.
Thomson, a molecular and cell biology professor in the Science Faculty, recently addressed the United Nations on the topic as a guest of Secretary General, Kofi Annan.
She has also written extensively on the subject, with her book "Genes for Africa: Genetically Modified Crops in the Developing World" appearing on the short-list of this year's Alan Paton Award for Non-Fiction.
In welcoming the guests, who were drawn from the business and agricultural sectors, as well as the parliamentary and the diplomatic community, Ndebele said the intention was to showcase UCT's research expertise to a cross-section of influential decision-makers.
He said the University's research excellence had been widely acknowledged and honoured.
The targeted members of the Vice-Chancellor's External Forum were top management and leaders, those directly confronted by the issues of research and transformation that would constitute the agenda for the series.
He hoped the series would generate a lively debate and enhance the ability of guests to fulfil their leadership roles in society.
On the topic of genetically modified food and technology, he pointed to "many ethical and moral dilemmas" in the use of living organisms to make useful products, making it an ideal subject for debate.
In her address, Thomson gave an African perspective on the use of GM crops, in particular the use of GM technology to enhance the ability of plants to resist disease, drought, herbicides and insects.
She highlighted two areas of research at UCT - namely the development of maize that is resistant to the maize-streak virus, as well as the use of "resurrection" plants to enhance drought resistance, which is a uniquely South African project.
She also pointed to new research looking at the use of plants to make vaccines that could be administered orally, rather than through injections.
Among the other concerns she dealt with were food safety, food labelling, and environmental concerns.
The next topic in the series will be on new developments in HIV/AIDS research.