In celebration of Women’s Month 2018, we are featuring female researchers who receive funding from the NRF. We thank the ladies for volunteering to share their stories with us.
Matefo Millicent Litabe is currently pursuing her Master’s in Medical Virology at the University of the Free State.
I am from a small town in the Free State, Marquard. I come from a small family of four which includes my parents, my younger brother and myself. Both my parents are teachers and my brother is a first-year law student at the University of the Free State.
What made you decide to choose your field of study?
In high school, I always enjoyed biology and found it very interesting – it was, by a long way, the most exciting subject that I had. That is how I knew that my choice of study in university would involve biology.
I also found that biology had a huge impact on our lives. Because of this, I began looking for degrees that I could pursue in biology. This led me to microbiology and biochemistry as my undergraduate majors, followed by a pursuit of virology in my postgraduate studies. I got more fascinated by the viruses and many of the neglected tropical diseases that occur around us, which the majority of individuals are not aware of.
What does your current research focus on?
My current study focuses on looking at how the immune system responds to infection with the Sindbis virus, mainly focusing on the pro-inflammatory cytokines that are released due to infection.
Briefly, the project involves studying the immune response of Sindbis virus outside of a living system (in vitro) in a controlled environment. This will involve infecting macrophages and monocytes with Sindbis virus to determine their crucial role in the development of chronic arthritis.
Macrophages and monocytes are some of the major cell groups that are found in articular tissue during the Sindbis virus infection. Therefore, it may play a crucial role in the development of arthritis. These cells will then be monitored for specific pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines that are released during infection and which may be associated with chronic arthritis.
How do you think your work/research can benefit/impact South Africans and/or the world?
This study will help in understanding the role of monocytes and macrophages in host responses to the Sindbis virus and the role they play in arthritis.
It is useful for scientists to understand these responses as they may be used for identifying possible drugs for treatment. Also, there is very little information on the effect of viruses transmitted by mosquitoes and how the body responds leading to chronic arthritis. This study will help in the knowledge and understanding of how the body responds to viruses transmitted by mosquitoes.
What obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?
During my first year of university one of my major challenges was studying. The workload was more than I had expected and required more effort which was a huge adjustment from high school. Sometimes it seemed like it was impossible to keep up but at the end, through a lot of hard work, I prevailed.
Like a lot of other students, I also experienced financial difficulties. I had to learn to budget, work hard to obtain merit bursaries, and also find other sources of funding that were available for my degree.
What is your vision for the future – what do you hope to achieve in the next ten years?
Following my Master’s, I want to continue with my PhD which will help me acquire more skills and broaden my knowledge in the field of virology. Looking towards the future, I would like to acquire skills that will allow me to work with BSL 3 and 4 pathogens and also to conduct fieldwork during outbreaks.
What is your advice for young people who want to pursue a career in STEM?
Everyday life is affected by STEM in many great ways. By choosing a career path in STEM, it ultimately means you will contribute to a better future. Choose something that you are truly passionate about and you will always be motivated and believe in what you are doing.
What other interests do you have outside of your chosen career?
I enjoy playing tennis and spending as much time as possible with my family.