Virus grounds Brackenfell researcher

Dr Paul Williams, 38, of Brackenfell is a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Food Science in Stellenbosch Universitys Faculty of AgriScience.

Dr Paul Williams, of Brackenfell, was all packed and ready to jet off to America next month. And then Covid-19 happened.

The 38-year-old lecturer and researcher in the Department of Food Science at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of AgriScience was chosen to represent South Africa at the annual Defence and Commercial Sensing (DCS) Rising Researchers conference in California, America, hosted by SPIE, the international society of optics and photonics.

Dr Williams said he would be missing “an opportunity of a lifetime”.

Because of the Covid-19 travel restrictions, he and 13 American researchers will now have to resort to giving their presentation online.

Dr Williams’s task is to distinguish the difference between the DNA and meat of the South African springbok and blesbok compared to kangaroo and reindeer meat.

The issue of food fraud was top of his mind when he started the work, he said.

“Once it is cut, you cannot really distinguish kudu from springbok meat, for instance, and therefore we need methods that can do so.”

He has a window from April 6 to April 10 to submit his online presentation but has to find time to get it ready in between giving online lectures to his students.

“Because of Covid-19, graduation at the Stellenbosch University will be cancelled for the year. I don’t think people see the severity of this pandemic,” he said.

The cancellation of the trip, he said, had limited his ability to work with other scientists in his field.

Dr Williams had dreams of being a musician but was drawn into his present field after attending a conference in Sweden in 2007 where he worked on a non-destructive way to grade and evaluate the quality and safety of maize kernels.

“This is what food science is all about, from the time that milk comes from the cow or that vegetable comes from the farm to the time it gets on your dinner table we have already figured out a process of how to make the treat more delicious for the pallet.”

Dr Williams is studying data science at Stellenbosch University, with the hope of focusing on artificial intelligence.

“I want to encourage people that they are not too old to learn, and not to give up. There is something such as trying again,” he said.