Women's Month 2023: Dr Monique Bignoux

Women’s Month 2023: Dr Monique Bignoux

August is Women’s Month, and this year the National Research Foundation (NRF) is celebrating the remarkable contributions that have been made by women researchers for the betterment of humanity. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us.

Dr Monique Bignoux is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS). She has received funding from the NRF from Master’s through to postdoctoral studies.

What impact did the NRF have on your studies/career?

I have essentially been funded by the NRF since 2016. I received an NRF Master’s block grant (2016-2017) and an NRF Innovation Doctoral Scholarship (2018-2020). Due to COVID, I additionally received NRF Doctoral Extension funding (2021). I received grantholder-linked postdoctoral funding for the end of 2022 and I then received my own NRF Postdoctoral Grant (2023-2024).

This funding has supported me through my entire postgraduate studies and is still supporting my career today, which has ultimately allowed me to become an accomplished scientist with five co-authored publications and two patents, allowing me to be an independent individual. Without these grants, I would not have been able to complete my postgraduate studies and I would not have been able to make the scientific contributions that I have. The impact of this funding goes far beyond me as an individual.

What has been your study/career journey?

My dreams of becoming a Molecular Biologist began in Grade 11 when we started learning about genetics. This ignited my passion for the subject and I decided then that I wanted to get a PhD. Since then, there has never been a second of doubt whether this was the right career field for me.

Completing my matric at Fairmont High School in the Western Cape, I chose WITS specifically for its accomplished School of Molecular and Cell Biology. I then completed my entire tertiary education at WITS, from BSc all the way to my Doctoral degree. However, after completing my Honours degree in Genetics, I was unable to find a supervisor who had enough funding to offer me an MSc project. This led me to the Biochemistry and Cell Biology Department where I approached Prof Stefan Weiss who offered me a project that really piqued my interest – investigating ways to halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. This only ignited my passion further and I found a whole new side of Molecular Biology that I genuinely loved.

Although I was provided with a PhD project, we were, unfortunately, unable to continue with the work investigating Alzheimer’s disease due to a lack of funding. This brought me to investigate ways to target several hallmarks of cancer through a targeted approach. Although still very much in line with my love of Cell Biology and Biochemistry, it didn’t capture me in the same way that studying Alzheimer’s disease did. This, therefore, pointed me to Dr Eloise van der Merwe, my current postdoctoral host, who shares my enthusiasm for studying neurodegenerative diseases. 

I believe my sincere passion and excitement for the subject are the reasons for my significant academic accomplishments, of which the NRF has been a huge supporter.

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

My current research is hosted by Dr Eloise van der Merwe in the Cell Biology and Signalling Research Lab at WITS University and focuses on investigating the link between metabolic disorders and Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, the information available is limited, and I have been given the wonderful opportunity to work on the first study to use samples from our unique and diverse South African population. We have thus far identified several key pathways and a key molecular target involved in Alzheimer’s disease progression, and we are actively identifying compounds to target these pathways using a combination of in silico and in vitro models.

My expertise lies in Biochemistry and Cell Biology, with a passion for exploiting the molecular mechanisms underlying Alzheimer’s disease for the development of therapeutic interventions to improve the quality of life of those suffering from the debilitating disease.

I currently have five co-authored publications in international peer-reviewed journals and two more first-author publications currently in preparation.

Why is your research/work important?

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and to date, the existing research on the neuropathological hallmarks of this devastating disease has not yet yielded any disease-modifying therapeutics. This is shocking and shows that research needs to be re-orientated to investigate and identify possible causes, rather than aiming to treat the symptoms. Therefore, rather than looking into the late-stage hallmarks, such as amyloid plaques and tau tangles, we need to delve deep into the events occurring prior to these hallmarks forming.

Our study thus aims to identify the link between metabolic disorders and Alzheimer’s disease using samples from our unique and diverse South African population. Our end goal is to identify specific pathways and proteins involved for potential biomarker identification, and therefore, early diagnosis. In addition, we aim to identify potential drug targets and modifiable risk factors for treatment, for the ultimate prevention of Alzheimer’s disease for sustainable health and well-being, and to improve quality of life.

There is still a long way to go to truly achieve equity and a sense of belonging for women, be it within the research community or society in general. How do you envision yourself contributing to this space?

Dr van der Merwe is a large advocate for supporting previously disadvantaged individuals and one of her focuses is on prioritising placing females within her lab group. Her kind and gentle leadership creates a sense of teamwork and belonging. In addition to supporting my growth and passion for the subject, this has given me the opportunity to mentor and co-supervise these individuals in practical, technical and writing skills, both growing myself as an individual and as a scientist, and allowing me to make my own contribution to the academic careers of these wonderful ladies. We currently have an all-female group of students from diverse backgrounds and in various stages of completing their postgraduate degrees. It brings me great pride to support them in their academic endeavours. I have great hope for the future of women in STEM

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

Things are changing and there is a lot of support and advocacy for girls and women in STEM now, and this continues to improve year-on-year. If this is the career path that you want to follow, then go for it! Make sure to research universities; the schools within the universities; and the individuals within to gain a good understanding of the culture and support systems available. If you are aiming to continue to postgraduate level, get to know your lecturers in undergrad and identify who may be a good fit for you – sometimes the project may not excite you as much as the others available, but you will still gain the necessary skills and a project change can always be made later!

One of the most important pieces of advice I can offer is that the culture and type of leadership you encounter can make or break an individual – rather find someone who will properly support you and your aspirations to help you be the best you can be, then the right project will come to you.

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