Dr Heidi de Wet, PhD, Department of Chemical Pathology, UCT Medical School: BSc (Hons) in Biochemistry, Potchefstroom University
How did you end up studying genetics? What and who inspired you along the way?
My subjects in highschool were English, afrikaans, maths, science, biology and music. My maths and science marks were quite poor in matric, I got an E for maths HG and a D for Science HG!
I wanted to pursue a career in zoology or veterinary science, and was allowed to enrol in a zoology/botany-based BSc. After one month of zoology, I realised that I absolutely hated cutting up specimens and spent most of my practicals trying not to faint! So, for my second year I tried something as bloodless as possible-botany. I also did well enough in Chemistry during my first year to pursue it as a second year subject, and took biochemistry (genetics) simply to fill my curriculum up. What a lovely surprise! I loved it! And never looked back.
After finishing my Honours course at Potchefstroom I felt like a change and applied for a MSc (which was upgraded to a PhD) at UCT when I saw an advert for a project at their medical school.
What do you love best about what you do?
I am currently working as a postdoctoral research fellow at Tygerberg Medical School, doing research on bone growth and how bone cells decide to grow in other words, what genes are up-or downregulated in response to cortisone treatment.
Doing research is great because you really have to stay on your toes the whole time. It's a thinking game, trying to tease answers out of a rather unwilling Mother Nature. And, of course, you feel like you are making a difference by contributing something to the understanding of how things work.
What would you say is frustrating about your field of study?
Being a research scientist involves a lot of donkey work repeating assays over and over again, because it is, well you know, RE-search! Doing something that no-one has done before takes a lot of time, patience and guesswork.
For every positive result there are usually 50 negatives.
What was the title of your PhD? Why did you choose your specialty?
"The Nucleotide Binding Domains of Multidrug Resistant Proteins". I worked on these membrane transporters that pump drugs out of their targets cells, so cells are resistant to these drugs. It's a common problem in cancers, TB and even malaria. I was working on the ones that cause resistance to chemotherapy in humans, we were expressing these proteins in bacteria, to make production and isolation of large amounts possible.
South Africa is considered a thirdworld country. Would you say that this affects the quality of our genetics research?
Yes, because quality of research is often determined by how much funding and resources one has. Most PhD students go and do a "post-doc" research period overseas, and come back with lots of experience and new expertise. South Africa's conservation/population genetics are world class, we have all the animals right here, so we actually have lots of foreign students coming here for their MScs and PhDs.
What words of warning and encouragement would you have for someone who wants to study genetics?
Genetics is a wide term. It can be looking at the mutations in genes that cause metabolic disorders, or expressing human genes in bacteria for easier investigation, or comparing the DNA fingerprints of various animals (to determine how related they are) for conservation biology.
I think it is quite difficult to really know what one likes when one leaves highschool.
Anyone who is interested in biological sciences should try and enrol in a general BSc course that exposes you to basic maths, chemistry, biochemistry, botany and zoology. You never know what you will find you like! And don't be discouraged if your matric marks are less than great, one sometimes just needs to find something that really grabs your attention.
Any last comments?
Listen to Mark Shuttleworth on hip to be square! Don't let friends tell you science is boring. A career in science might not always make you rich, but you will be guaranteed to have an interesting, flexible and challenging job for the rest of your life!
Young Science Communicators Writing Initiative:
In an initiative to offer a platform to exercise skills in science communication, PUB commissioned a group of young scientists to write popular articles on various topics relating to biotechnology applications. Read their on articles on topics including sustainable energy, aquaculture, palaeogenomics, and more... Click here to view.
Previous PUB Quarterly Newsletters:
Shedding Light on Human Genetic Diversity
A paper detailing the the Southern African Genome Sequencing Project and its results was published in the journal Nature.
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