Award for Quantum Technology Scientist’s Achievements
Dr Adriana Marais of the Centre for Quantum Technology at UKZN has been awarded the prestigious Meiring Naudé Medal by the Royal Society of South Africa (RSSAf) for her extraordinary achievements as a young scientist.
The Meiring Naudé Medal is named after a former President of the RSSAf, Mr Meiring Naudé, who graduated from the University of Stellenbosch in the 1920s and studied in Berlin under Max Planck, Albert Einstein and other renowned scientists. Naude was also known for his discovery of the isotope N15.
The medal is awarded annually to a scientist under the age of 35 who has made outstanding contributions to the furtherance of science and who is poised to become a leader in the field.
Marais’ work in Quantum Biology is on the question of what exactly it is that classifies life; what distinguishes living beings from the inanimate matter of which they are made. This has led her down intriguing lanes of research to investigating quantum effects in energy transfer in photosynthesis as well as proposing a mechanism through which photosynthetic systems protect themselves from harmful free radicals, which is essentially through the use of the effective magnetic fields generated by quantum mechanical property spin. She was awarded her PhD for her work on quantum effects in photosynthesis.
Since one of the biggest open questions in science is that of how exactly life began, Marais’ post doctoral research on quantum effects in photosynthesis and the origins of prebiotic molecules is ideally placed to contribute to the exploration of that question. Her work on photosynthesis, one of the earliest living processes to have evolved, may also have implications for animals and humans, since these same free radicals are associated with ageing and disease.
Her work investigating the photosynthetic processes of life on a quantum scale is only a small part of her interests. The ambitious scientist has used her passion for her science and her curiosity to interrogate the definition of life to take a giant leap towards something of a more universal proportion. In 2013, she applied to be one of the first people to embark on a manned mission to Mars through the Mars One initiative, and has since reached the top 100 candidates contending for the one-way trip. Only four people will undertake the proposed journey in 2026, with additional groups to follow in subsequent years.
In both her research and her pursuit of space travel, Marais has endeavoured to exceed limitations in achieving what seems impossible. During the motivational talks she gives to encourage interest in science, she often uses the Nelson Mandela utterance: ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done’.
Professor Francesco Petruccione of the Centre of Quantum Technology, who supervised Marais’ summa cum laude master’s degree and her PhD, said the widely-published young scientist was an ideal recipient of the medal because of her excellent research and wide range of activities and experience.
Her enthusiasm for advancing society is also clearly seen in the voluntary work she takes on in the form of serving as a Special Project Co-ordinator for the Foundation for Space Development South Africa, which is driving the Africa2Moon project. She is passionate about sharing her knowledge for scientific development, lecturing Physics for the Centre for Science Access at UKZN and the BHP Billiton BSc for Educators Programme in the Northern Cape. Her work is frequently covered by scientific and popular media outlets, with a recent article by Marais and her team, titled: “A Quantum Protective Mechanism, appearing in the Nature journal Scientific Reports”.
The Meiring Naudé Medal adds to Marais’ already long list of awards: she received a South African Department of Science and Technology Fellowship Award in 2010, and in 2013 was one of 10 recipients of a L’Oreal-UNESCO Regional Fellowship for Women in Science in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2014 she was one of 200 Young South African achievers recognised by the Mail & Guardian, and in 2015 went on to be one of 15 recipients worldwide of a L’Oreal-UNESCO International Rising Talent Grant for Women in Science.
Marais thanked her supervisors, Petruccione and Dr Ilya Sinayskiy for their contributions and advice during her studies and for facilitating international partnerships which have contributed greatly to her research.
‘I am very grateful to my nominators and the Royal Society of South Africa selection committee for their support of our research in quantum biology,’ said Marais in response to being named as this year’s recipient.
‘To be recognised by the Royal Society of South Africa is a huge honour in my research career and personally a big inspiration to keep on striving for answers in the field of quantum biology, especially as I believe that quantum biology could provide a physicochemical description of biology to answer one of science’s greatest conundrums: the origin of life.’
‘Furthermore, I believe we will see biologically-inspired nanotechnologies transforming our world in the next few decades.’