Her South African Alma Mater from the Days of Apartheid Honors Marlene Belfort
UAlbany's Marlene Belfort, at left, with University of Cape Town Vice Chancellor Mamokghethi Phakeng and Georges Belfort, at UCT graduation ceremonies in December.
ALBANY, N.Y. (Jan 21, 2020) —The University of Cape Town’s “Golden Book,” which boasts the names of such luminaries as Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, has now added those of UAlbany Distinguished Professor Marlene Belfort of Biological Sciences and her husband, RPI Institute Professor Georges Belfort.
The Golden Book is reserved for UCT’s distinguished visitors and those awarded honorary doctorates, as the Belforts were on Dec. 13 during graduate ceremonies in the university’s Sarah Baartman Hall. Marlene received the doctor of science and Georges, RPI’s Russell Sage Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, the doctor of science in engineering.
In addition to joining the prestigious ranks of UCT-honored leaders in academics, politics, the arts, law and economy, the Belforts had special reason for savoring the tribute: The couple grew up and met in Cape Town, and graduated UCT more than five decades ago, during the era of apartheid.
In addressing the audience of 390 students, which greeted her introduction with a huge ovation, Marlene Belfort expressed her gratitude to UCT for bestowing “this incredible honor upon Georges and me. It is the privilege of a lifetime.”
Back in Albany weeks later, she described the trip as “a mind-blowing experience. Georges and I met on the beach in Cape Town, when I was 13, he 18, dated when I graduated high school and overlapped at UCT for a couple years, marrying 10 years after we first met, just before we both entered our respective PhD programs at U Cal Irvine.
“When Georges and I attended UCT it was 99 percent white, whereas the graduation ceremony had more than 50 percent students of color — mainly black Africans. It remains an institution of high quality. It was a visit that gave us hope for change in the U.S. too.”
In leading the introductions for the honorary degrees, Professor Alison Lewis, UCT’s dean of engineering, cited Marlene Belfort’s groundbreaking discoveries on intron DNA, which have elevated her to membership in the National Academy of Sciences and fellowship in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
“What was termed ‘junk DNA,’ or intron DNA, was thought to only occur in complex organisms, but Marlene Belfort and her team found some in a single cell bacteria,” said Lewis. “And the story does not end there. She went on to show that introns were not junk at all, but were mobile genetic elements, with very important functions.”
Lewis praised Belfort as well for her path-setting career as a woman in the hard sciences. One of the first students at UCT to major in microbiology, Belfort received her bachelor’s degree in ’65 and an honors degree in physiological chemistry a year later.
“Marlene Belfort also has dedicated significant energy to mentoring younger women scientists, technicians, students and even high school students,” said Lewis.
Lewis cited Georges Belfort for his pioneering work on bringing about “collaborations and convergences in science” and his eventual renown as a world authority on bioseparation, the science of purifying biological products on a large scale. He graduated UCT in 1963 with a bachelor’s in chemical engineering. He has been at RPI since 1978.
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