Why did you get into research?
I’ve always had an inquisitive mind – from high school through varsity. That’s why I found Science so appealing. I also want my inquisitive mind to count for something. To help someone. To be relevant. Coming from a very disadvantaged background I’ve found the burden of infectious disease to be disproportionately high in these settings. As a Medical Microbiologist I was keen to look at the hows and whys behind some people succumbing to infectious diseases while others don’t. And why some respond well to antimicrobials and other fail to respond.
For context: It’s also about going back to early infancy when children have an under-developed immune system. How do we best protect children with vaccines so that they don’t easily succumb to infectious disease if exposed. I’m interested in why certain vaccines fail. And so finding ways we can develop better ones.
Why focus on children?
I love kids. If you speak to a mother who sees their child coughing and there’s nothing she can do about it, you’ll often hear her say she wishes she could take the pain away from the child – even if it means she’ll end up suffering. That’s the language one can’t get away from. If you’re in a position where you can lend a hand and find a better way – do it. This work is an opportunity for people to do something relevant – not just in their peripheral but in the communities they are part of.
What should people know about Respiratory infections that isn’t necessarily common knowledge?
I want to focus on lower respiratory tract infections (LRTI). LRTI are disproportionately higher in Africa with 36 million cases resulting in more than 600,000 pneumonia-associated deaths each year. They range from chronic wheeze/asthma to more complicated chronic lung disease. Reductions in under-5 mortality have been achieved through improved strategies to prevent and treat childhood LRTI, with new vaccines, particularly pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) – a major advance in reducing the incidence and severity of childhood LRTI. However, even in children with high vaccination coverage, LRTI remains the most important single cause of child deaths, hospitalisation and morbidity. Further, early life LRTI has increasingly been associated with the development of chronic respiratory disease and substantial morbidity. Colonisation of the upper airways precedes disease and serve as a reservoir for person-to-person transmission. Many children are asymptomatically colonised but only a few go on to develop disease.
Questions arise: Why do certain children get sick from microbes while others don’t? Why do some live happily and without incident for extended periods of time?
We want to understand how this happens. To know how these microbes make their way to the lower respiratory tract and cause lower respiratory disease such as pneumonia.
How would you say your work impacts society?
This work will provide insights into a long-standing unresolved question of what drives progression from nasopharyngeal colonisation to invasive infection. Understanding whether there is variation at the pathogen level which drives such progression may provide insights for novel preventive approaches. Antimicrobial-resistant pneumococci are widespread, and resistance can result in treatment failures and transmission of antimicrobial resistant clones. Our proposed work on cotrimoxazole resistance will comprehensively assess the genetic basis of such resistance and help understand the fitness cost associated with resistance. My involvement in the invasive bacterial diseases in sub-Saharan Africa directly feeds into vaccine formulation and treatment guidelines at different spheres.
Practically – what does the accolade of becoming an Associate Member, mean for your work?
As an emerging researcher I have learnt a lot from where I come from. The mentorship I continue to receive from senior Principal Investigators and my interactions with other researchers within the IDM has been a constant motivation. Especially when it comes to refining and finding innovative ways to improve my approach to problem-solving and developing an independent research portfolio. I’d further like to leverage the available resources within the IDM to collaborate with other leading researchers in the fight against infectious diseases.
I’m impressed by the deliberate steps the Institution has taken in developing and extending Science beyond South Africa’s boarders into other African countries. This is evidenced by how many students from other African countries have been trained and graduated from the IDM. I want to contribute to training students like me from previously disadvantaged backgrounds into becoming the next generation of scientists.
What do you hope to achieve, career-wise, in the long term?
I plan to establish my own research group which will focus on microbial genomics, microbe-microbe and microbe-host interactions. I will take this forward to understanding not just the presence or absence of microbes, but what each of these were doing or producing in those ecological niches. And beyond that – how that relates into disease progression.
What do you enjoy about your work?
Teaching: I enjoy seeing inquisitive minds when I stand before a class to teach and the feedback I receive.
Research: I’m fascinated by constantly discovering new things. Or developing and validating protocols.
Mentoring: I wouldn’t have been here if somebody hadn’t taken a chance on me. When mentorship met my hard work and resilience, it set me on the trajectory that brought me to where I am.
The most exciting part is sharing my work with my community through radio interviews as well as showcasing at international stages including conferences and workshops.
One for the kids: Medical Microbiologist - Explain what you do to a five-year old:
My job involves looking at germs that make children sick. I focus on germs that affect the nose, lungs and skin. I am also interested in how different germs speak to each other to make sickness worse. Each germ is different. My job is to find out what makes these germs different so that we can make medicine to either help the body become stronger and fight these bad germs or kill them entirely. But some of these germs have become very clever and have learnt to dodge the medicine. Part of my work is also to understand how they do this – this is called antibiotic resistance.