NRF Women's Month 2022: Dr Samkeliso Takaidza

NRF Women’s Month 2022: Dr Samkeliso Takaidza

Women’s Month 2022 is celebrated under the theme of “Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights for an equal future” and links to the achievement of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5) of Gender Equality by 2030. The NRF is committed to supporting women to advance their careers and establish themselves as researchers and, to this end, has developed a range of funding instruments aimed at supporting emerging female researchers.

Dr Samkeliso Takaidzaisa Senior Technologist at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT). She manages a Molecular Research Laboratory; assists with lecturing Microbiology II to Diploma students and Biotechniques for Advanced Diploma students, and is involved in research focused on Medicinal Plants. She also supervises postgraduate students and is a member of the Faculty Research Committee. Dr Takaidza is a current NRF Thuthuka* grantholder.

What impact did NRF funding have on your career?

In 2015, I had the opportunity to attend the SA PhD Conference where different researchers shared their motivating research journeys. This encouraged me to stay focused on the path that I had chosen in pursuit of a PhD. A lot of information was also shared on how to apply for funding. My PhD was supported by the NRF Freestanding Innovation and Scarce Skills Master’s and Doctoral Scholarship. Post my PhD, I successfully applied for a Research Grant: NRF Thuthuka (2021-2023).

What has been your study/career journey: how did you end up where you are today?

My secondary school science and biology teachers stimulated my interest in science; thereafter my subject choices were aligned with the sciences. My eagerness to learn has brought me this far. My research career began during my Honours studies where I looked at the antimicrobial activity of Combretum molle on selected bacterial strains. Participating in research at this stage provided me with basic skills, including communication and presentation.

My Master’s project was on the bio-fouling of membranes at a Sasol water treatment facility in Sasolburg. At that time, I worked as a molecular laboratory technician. I assisted postgraduates with their research projects. This allowed me to master research techniques including PCR and qPCR, and gel electrophoresis. Time management was crucial to keeping to my research plan.

For my Doctoral studies, I shifted back to medicinal plants. The title of my project was “Phytochemical analysis and biological activities of crude extracts from selected Tulbaghia species”. Antioxidant, antimicrobial, anticancer, and immunomodulatory activities were investigated. Study findings showed that Tulbaghia violacea has good antifungal and anticancer activity in vitro. Although I met several challenges during my PhD study, including difficulties in procuring plant samples, I worked hard and managed to complete my studies within three years.

I had opportunities to present some of my findings at international conferences. I was also awarded a NAM S&T Centre Research Training Fellowship for Developing Country Scientists (RTF-DCS) in 2016-17, to work for six months under mentorship in a cancer research lab at Sathyabama University, India. I published a number of papers in peer-reviewed journals. I also gained knowledge of tissue culture, flow cytometry, multiplex, and other microbial and molecular techniques. Although I am an emerging researcher, I have accumulated a strong background in several research fields. I currently supervise five Master’s and one Doctoral student.

I participate in self-development programs when the opportunity avails. I have attended the Postgraduate Supervision training in 2020 offered by Rhodes University and I was also nominated to attend a Virtual HERSA Academy Program: Women In Leadership in 2020. The benefits of these include interacting with motivational speakers and meeting strong women who have gone/ are going through similar career challenges. This gives one the strength to carry on. You learn a lot and do a lot of self-evaluation. This gives one the motivation to keep working and improving oneself. I believe to be able to lead, whether as a lecturer or postgraduate supervisor, one has to keep improving themselves to be able to offer their best.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

My current research focuses on the medicinal plant with bioactivities with potential pharmacological activities. Medicinal plant drug discovery provides new and important leads against various pharmacological targets. The growing need for some solutions to antimicrobial drug resistance and drug toxicity issues led me to choose this field for my Doctoral studies.

What fascinates me is that current research in the search for novel compounds from medicinal plants involves a multifaceted approach combining botanical, phytochemical, biological, and molecular techniques. Significant research and development exist to discover novel and useful biological activities for South African medicinal plants. The findings of my Doctoral study showed that Tulbaghia violacea has good antifungal and anticancer activity in vitro. These findings birthed a number of Master’s projects where students are looking at molecular targets and mechanisms of action of crude extracts and the fractions of selected medicinal plants on fungal and cancer cells. A number of selected medicinal plants known to be used for anticancer and microbial infections in traditional medicine are also being investigated.

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Although great advancements have been made in the treatment and control of cancer progression, significant deficiencies and room for improvement remain. Efforts are in progress to develop lead candidates from phytochemicals that can block or retard the growth of cancer without any side effects. On the other hand, despite the success of antibiotic discovery, infectious diseases remain one of the leading causes of death worldwide, while the resistance to antibiotics is among the significant problems in the 21st century. Alteration of target sites, active efflux of drugs, and enzymatic degradations are the strategies employed by the pathogenic bacteria to develop intrinsic resistance to antibiotics. Therefore, crude extracts of medicinal plants could serve as an alternate source of resistance modifying agents owing to the wide variety of secondary metabolites.

Why is your research important?

Medicinal plants are rich sources of bioactive compounds that are potential alternatives for drug development. Research efforts are expediting for a better functional understanding of medicinal plants, and this has provided a model for some drugs on the market. Due to the enormous therapeutic possibilities in medicinal plants, there is a continuous need for research on the effectiveness, efficacy, and novel compounds that can serve as alternative therapeutics.

Medicinal plants are very rich in phytochemicals that can be structurally optimised and processed into new drugs. Investigations and optimisation of these compounds will facilitate the development of new sets of pharmacologically acceptable therapeutic agents. Therefore, studies to examine the efficacy of medicinal plants as alternative therapeutics in combating and curtailing the development and survival of multidrug-resistant pathogens and anticancer drugs are of great importance.

Plants produce important secondary metabolites as a protective mechanism, which could be used to target various factors that play a key role in carcinogenesis. Plant extracts or their derivatives may be used in the treatment of bacterial and fungal infections in the determined concentration ranges. Their anticancer properties can be used for further studies with in vivo models and clinical trials.

Medicinal plants will continue to play a great role in tackling the diseases of public health importance, therefore knowledge of these plants is of great importance. Knowledge obtained through research on these plants can also bring to light the tremendous potential for the commercialisation of underutilised African plants.

What advice do you have for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers?

There are a lot of career opportunities in the domain of science. Focus on what you are passionate about and channel your energies towards making a career around it.  Do a lot of research about what you are interested in pursuing as a career, there is a lot of information available nowadays. Try to connect with people in that field who can also give you valuable information. As scientists, it is important that we look at careers not as job opportunities, but as spaces in which we can create that opportunity by translating ideas into projects that are beneficial to the communities around us.

*The NRF’s Thuthuka funding instrument, initiated in 2001, aims to develop human capital and to improve the research capacities of researchers and scholars from designated groups with the ultimate aim of redressing historical imbalances.

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