Inaugural Lecture: Professor Brett Pletschke

6 August 2014

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Deans, Heads of Department, colleagues, students, family and friends of Prof Pletschke, ladies and gentlemen – molweni, good evening, welcome.

The University Calendar lists all the current full professors of Rhodes University. Professor Brett Ivan Pletschke, Head of Biochemistry in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, is one of the more recent entries on the list.

This evening, as is our tradition, we have the presentation of the Inaugural Lecture that follows the University conferring the status of full professor on an academic.

It is an evening on which as academic peers, colleagues, students, family, friends, and the public we celebrate the intellectual and scholarly achievements of one of our professors.

Born in East London, Brett has spent most of his life in what he calls “the beautiful spacious Eastern Cape”, having lived in Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown for most part. He has always had a keen curiosity in the natural and life sciences, with an initial interest in veterinary medicine which was surpassed by his passion to be a research scientist at around the age of eight.

So in 1986, following his deep passion for marine biology, he enrolled for BSc studies at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (then known as the University of Port Elizabeth) with the aim of obtaining a PhD in Marine Biology. 

Out of sheer desperation to avoid the dreaded discipline, Statistics (which he says incidentally he now enjoys and uses on a daily basis), he enrolled for Biochemistry 201.  To his surprise, Biochemistry opened a new world to him and he suddenly felt as if he had discovered a new language no one else knew – operating at the brink of life and learning about its blueprint i.e. DNA.

He soon learnt that Biochemistry meant understanding the complex phenomena of life much  more  fully,  underpinning  the  beautiful  disciplines  of  Zoology, Marine Biology, Botany, Physiology, Anatomy, Health, Cosmetic and Sport Science, Biotechnology, in fact an endless list.

Brett was awarded his PhD in Biochemistry in 1996, specialising in the fields of enzymology and protein chemistry.

In late 1999, while he was conducting his Postdoctoral Fellowships in the Departments of Chemical Pathology and Biochemistry at UCT, he received a call from the then Head of Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at Rhodes University, Professor Peter Rhodes, following his application for a position in that department, inviting him to have a supper meeting at the V&A   Waterfront.  

Brett recalls the meeting well and says that because of Peter’s very convincing personality, he immediately decided to make the move back to the lovely Eastern Cape, closer to his family, and working in the area of wastewater enzymology – which he calls “a dirty but fascinating mixture of microbes and enzymes with a strong biotechnological thrust.”

He joined Rhodes University at 8.00 am on the 10th of January 2000 as a Research Lecturer.

He was promoted to Lecturer in 2001, then to Senior Lecturer in 2005, and in 2010 was promoted to Associate Professor.

Brett was trained in the classical fields of enzymology and protein chemistry and this field is  characterised  by  the  paradigm  “don’t  waste  clean  thinking  on  dirty  enzymes”.  Any enzyme under study is therefore purified to absolute homogeneity (purity) before biochemical characterisation can be performed in terms of analysing the physico-chemical, kinetic and immunochemical properties of the enzymes. 

Although he was still engaged in this research paradigm, he has always felt that something was lacking in terms of how we understand enzymes and the way they behave in the presence of each other and other metabolites in their complex environment.

His research interest over the past 13 to 14 years has focused on gaining a deeper understanding of the phenomena of enzyme synergy and cooperation in complex environments, using a range of suitable complex substrates.  He is currently extending this understanding for the generation of a global bio-economy, which is more sustainable and more environmentally benign.

Brett says he has been particularly blessed along the way with a supportive, flexible and collegial environment at Rhodes, friendly and supportive colleagues, and really solid scholars who have taught him the single most important word in academia: “scholarship”.

He firmly believes that research drives teaching, allowing his students to hopefully benefit from his experiences which are not only encountered in textbooks, but also at the very cutting edge of his field fuelled by the latest concepts and discoveries that have not yet made it into the textbooks.

Brett is a strong believer in constantly reflecting on himself in the way that he teaches and this has led him to obtaining a Postgraduate Diploma in Higher Education and Teaching, which he says has assisted him in developing his own teaching philosophy.

He is the recipient of several scholarships, fellowships and grants and is an NRF Rated Researcher.

Brett has supervised six post-Doctoral, 10 Doctoral and 14 MSc theses. Currently he is supervising two post-Doctoral and five PhDs (three of which he is co-supervising), as well as four MSc dissertations.

He has been an external examiner at several South African universities as well as Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia and the Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, Ranchi, India.

He has published one book and has six book chapters to his name. Has published more than 50 papers in peer-reviewed international journals or books and also contributed several chapters to the UNESCO EOLLS Program - an integrated on-line compendium of twenty encyclopaedias - which is made freely accessible to disadvantaged individuals and minority groups worldwide.

Brett has delivered several plenary talks and presented more than 60 papers at national conferences and over 30 papers at international conferences.

Given the particular focus of his research he has acted as a referee for several international funding organizations and served on the South African Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in several capacities including member of council, Vice-President and President.

He is also currently a member of the Royal Society of South Africa as well as a member of the Committee of the Eastern Cape Branch; member of several Water Research Commission Steering Committees; member of the European Federation of Biotechnology; member of the American Chemical Society; and member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He currently serves as a member on the Editorial Board of Biotechnology Letters and is Associate Editor of 3 Biotech, a journal published by Springer.

Brett is also Founder Member of the international Lignocellulose Biotechnology Consortium. He also heads an international research group of 13 researchers and collaborates with colleagues from the USA, Canada, Japan, Finland, Brazil, India, Thailand and South Africa.

He served as Acting Head of Department for several periods since joining the department. He also serves on the Rhodes University Committee of Assessors for various PhD candidates, the Rhodes University SciFac Research Committee and is a Member of the Board of Faculty of Science.

It is my great pleasure to invite Professor Brett Pletschke to address us.  His lecture this evening is titled “Enzymes: Biocatalysts for the Bioeconomy”.

Last Modified: Thu, 13 Nov 2014 09:30:40 SAST