Women's Month 2021: Dr Desiree Petersen

Women’s Month 2021: Dr Desiree Petersen

August is Women’s Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the Women of the NRF who are Advancing Knowledge, Transforming Lives and Inspiring a Nation. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the amazing women who are affiliated with the NRF through their work or studies.

Dr Desiree Petersen is a South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Specialist Scientist based at the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Biomedical Tuberculosis Research, SAMRC Centre for Tuberculosis Research (CTR), Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics within the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University.

This is her story…

I developed an interest in Genetics during high school and decided to pursue a BSc degree in Biological Sciences at Stellenbosch University. I continued with a BSc Hons degree in Human Genetics as well as an MSc and PhD degree in the fields of Human Genetics and Medical Virology, which were all obtained from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University.

After graduating in 2006 with a PhD in Health Sciences, I was offered a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Sydney, Australia at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in the Cancer Genetics Group. The research team relocated a year later to the Children’s Cancer Institute Australia in Sydney, where I held a position as a Research Officer. Thereafter, I accepted a Staff Scientist position in Genomic Medicine at the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, U.S.A. I later returned to the Garvan Institute as a Senior Research Officer in the Human Comparative and Prostate Cancer Genomics Group and, in addition, held a Conjoint Senior Lecturer position at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

After working abroad for more than 10 years at internationally recognised research institutes, I returned to South Africa in 2017 and was offered the Senior Research Officer position at the Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research (CPGR). In June 2021, I started in my current role as an SAMRC Specialist Scientist and I am a joint staff member of Stellenbosch University.

What role has the NRF played in your studies/career?

I have a current affiliation (since 1 June 2021) with the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence for Biomedical Tuberculosis Research.

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

My expertise spans across the areas of human genomics, population genetics, genetic diseases and genomic technologies. My research has focused on studying genetic diversity amongst human populations and understanding the role of host genetic factors in determining susceptibility to and progression of various common diseases, including cancer and infectious diseases.

How can your research/work advance knowledge, transform lives and inspire a nation?

I have contributed to research investigating the genetic diversity within various Southern African populations, which has proven to be significant in tracking human origins as well as uncovering the genetic basis of common complex diseases.

I was part of the international collaborative research team that first reported the complete sequencing of human genomes from Southern Africa. My research contributions have further included defining the genetic substructure of Southern African admixed populations and addressing their significance for identifying new genetic markers associated with the risk for developing specific diseases, which differs largely between populations. These unique Southern African populations display extensive genetic diversity and hold great potential for advancing precision medicine in the future.

I was also the Genomics Coordinator/Domain Expert for the Distributed Platform in Omics (DIPLOMICS) research infrastructure program funded by the DSI and I was involved in the development of the ‘Be Happy To Be You’ local ancestry platform, which is a direct-to-consumer service offering by Artisan Biomed, a subsidiary of the CPGR.

What is the most enjoyable part of your work/studies?

I enjoy Interacting with local and international researchers and collaborating on projects that address important aspects of innovative research that are impactful and relevant for Southern Africa. Both networking and learning more about various research efforts further promotes opportunities to establish collaborations across South African institutions.

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you during your studies/career?

There have been many memorable experiences over the years, including spending time at various laboratories in South Africa and abroad, which has provided me with the knowledge, skills and training to achieve current and future research goals. However, I did experience a funny moment when recently returning to Stellenbosch University’s Tygerberg Campus where I was given my new staff card with a photograph taken during my time as a PhD student. Seeing how young I looked back then certainly made me laugh, although it also brought back some good memories of how my scientific career started many years ago. This further reminded me of the many exciting opportunities I have had over the years before returning to the place where my journey began.

How do you balance work and life responsibilities?

Finding a work-life balance is often easier said than done, however, it is especially needed during more recent times with many still staying indoors or working remotely. When working long hours, as many researchers do, it is important to take the time to relax and recharge. Taking a break from intensive reading and critical thinking after a day of work assists with refreshing my mind, which also improves my focus when continuing with work tasks.

Having a need for more women role models in STEM is something that is often talked about, as it could help young girls foster an interest in science-related careers. In your opinion, what makes someone a good role model?

A good role model is someone with a positive attitude who is passionate about what they are doing and has achieved their success through hard work and dedication. There are many inspiring female researchers that have contributed in significant ways to ground-breaking research that many across the world continue to benefit from.

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