Madichaba Phuti Chelopo, a young research scientist from a township near Polokwane in Limpopo, talks about her interest in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and her recent experience of being chosen to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting for chemistry.

I obtained a BSc degree in Biochemistry and Chemistry in 2009, a BSc Honours degree in Chemistry in 2010 and MSc degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry in 2013, both from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). My basic degree in Chemistry and Biochemistry was what sparked my interest to pursue further research in the field of Pharmaceutical Chemistry. The intricacy of biological pathways and chemical processes within living organisms at the cellular level fascinated me and I loved the connection between organic chemistry to biochemistry.

I pursued my PhD degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry hosted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and registered at the North West University (NWU). My thesis is currently being evaluated which involved the design of a nanotechnology-based drug delivery system that will potentially help improve tuberculosis (TB) therapy by transporting anti-TB drugs more efficiently.

Developing as a scientist

I had the wonderful opportunity of being exposed to the Novartis working environment, where there is a resounding hard-working culture and care for patients. My experience as a Next Generation Scientist (NGS) intern at Novartis in Basel involved being engaged in a number of activities suited to my personal growth as a young scientist. I worked on a three-month long project that was related to my PhD project, which involved preparing other types of nano-carriers using advanced techniques, helping to foster collaboration for future research projects.

We went through sessions such as self-awareness training and had opportunities to meet with senior leaders at Novartis, including the CEO of Novartis, Joseph Jimenez, who spoke to us about their interests and career paths. We could ask them any question we liked which inspired me and provided me with insights towards developing greater leadership traits.

Another great experience was being involved in a side research project on a certain subject in the drug development process such as clinical trials, drug safety, healthcare systems etc., which we then had to present in teams to the other NGS interns. This was really an eye opener for me as a science student with an interest for healthcare but having previously had very limited information in this space.

The whole experience made me feel more grounded in my choice of research. It was a great step for my career growth and going through this programme was one of the key factors that allowed me the opportunity to be selected as one of the young scientists to attend the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting this year.

The chance of a life time

Attending the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting is an opportunity that every young scientist dreams of. My highlight was a talk from Professor Aaron Ciechanover, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for the use of ubiquitin to characterise how protein is degraded in cells. He spoke of the new revolution of personalised medicine, which involves diagnosing diseases at a molecular level and treating patients according to the genetic makeup of their diseases to avoid bombarding them with treatment that does not work for them and going through many side effects without being effectively treated.

My other highlight was having an encounter with Professor Ada Yonath, one of the few women to have ever been awarded a Nobel Prize and the only woman alive who received this award in Chemistry. She touched on the role of ribosomes in bacteria and how difficult it is to overcome antibiotic resistance, which is a great concern in South Africa especially in the treatment of TB. Despite the current underrepresentation of women, as a motivation to young women scientists, she said it is possible for more women to be awarded a Nobel Prize, through hard work and passion. She said it is a great advantage to bear children and not a set-back.

Improving our healthcare system

The use of technology is definitely a great step towards better management of patients and strengthening the effectiveness of our health system. I think technology is currently the best medium to ensure overall better care for patients. The technological advancement currently being implemented in public healthcare institutions is certainly a key to ensuring that the poorest citizens of this country benefit, which will assist with the implementation of National Health Insurance (NHI). I hope that the goal towards closing the gap in our current healthcare system will increase life expectancy which will lead to an improved economy.

As a young scientist I am optimistic about the future of our country’s healthcare system. However, there is definitely a need for improvements and practical solutions are required for patients who need help. The burden of dealing with poverty-related infections like TB and resistance to current treatments is making our country’s health status worse. Greater awareness is required amongst more young South Africans about their potential role in working towards solutions to our societal issues such as scientific research. There is funding available with efforts to increase the number of PhD graduates, and such information must be spread to reach the rural parts of this country. I am optimistic that we are slowly moving in the right direction but more effort is still required.

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