Youth Month 2023: Kalonji Abondance Tshisekedi

Youth Month 2023: Kalonji Abondance Tshisekedi

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the Youth of the NRF who are advancing knowledge, transforming lives, and inspiring a nation. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us.

Mr Kalonji Abondance Tshisekedi is a PhD student in Molecular Biology at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is currently funded by the NRF for his studies.

How did your journey start?

I was born and raised in Kinshasa where I spent my early years absorbed in studies. The subjects that caught my interest initially were Latin, Philosophy, and French but, over time, I found myself drawn towards the sciences, delving into Biology, Mathematics, and Physics. Outside of school, I spent a significant amount of time with my brother, learning how to disassemble and reassemble computers, a skill that proved invaluable in my later studies and career.

I began my higher education journey by enrolling in a BSc in Biomedicine at Midrand Graduate Institute/Pearson (now Eduvos). This course opened my eyes to the vast range of career options available within the field of science. Following this, I moved to Wits University where I undertook a postgraduate diploma in scientific studies, followed by BSc Honours in Microbiology and an MSc in Molecular Biology with distinction. Now, I’m fully immersed in my PhD, a journey that has reignited my passion for both biological science and computer sciences.

Growing up in Kinshasa, I witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of diseases such as Ebola, cholera, and malaria on our community. These experiences, coupled with my own personal battle with malaria, which nearly claimed my life, sparked a profound interest in understanding the microbial world. I was intrigued by these powerful yet microscopic entities, and their capacity to affect human health and wellbeing so profoundly.

Despite an early ambition to become a computer scientist, it was this enduring desire to understand and combat disease-causing microbes that guided my academic and career trajectory. It became clear to me that this was a field where I could make a tangible difference, contributing to global efforts to combat these devastating diseases. This mission has been my north star, guiding me through my academic journey and towards a future where I can contribute to improving public health and well-being.

How has your affiliation with the NRF impacted your studies/career?

NRF funding has been instrumental in allowing me to pursue my academic goals and conduct my research effectively. Without the support of the NRF, my journey towards achieving my Doctorate would have been far more challenging. One of the key challenges in pursuing postgraduate studies is the necessity to secure financial stability, as full-time employment is usually incompatible with the demands of research. The funding from the NRF relieved much of this stress, allowing me to focus on my studies and research.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

Navigating the world of biological research came with its fair share of challenges. In particular, working with large biological data posed a significant hurdle. The computational infrastructure necessary for such research was not always readily available or easy to understand. Additionally, obtaining the right computing equipment, such as servers with adequate hard drives, RAM, and CPUs, can be prohibitively expensive.

Luckily, my teenage hobby of dismantling and reassembling computers proved unexpectedly useful. I was able to piece together my own servers using refurbished computer parts sourced from Facebook Marketplace and pawn shops. This resourceful approach saved costs and allowed me to progress in my research.

The challenges I faced taught me invaluable lessons about resilience, tenacity, and the importance of adaptability. I learned that barriers are often opportunities in disguise, pushing us to innovate and find unique solutions. They taught me that a broad skill set is a powerful tool, allowing me to apply my understanding of computers in a way I never initially envisaged. Finally, these experiences underscored the importance of curiosity, showing me that a spirit of exploration and a willingness to learn can open up new avenues and opportunities.

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

My PhD research centres around microbial meta-OMICS, focusing on understanding microbial community interactions. Specifically, I am examining the influence of nitrogen levels on barley germination efficiency. This is of significant interest to the brewing industry, as barley is a crucial crop. By using metagenomic and proteomic approaches, I’m characterising the microbiome of barley under different nitrogen conditions, as well as examining how nitrogen levels impact grain storage protein composition. The insights gained from this research could potentially boost cereal crop productivity in the future.

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

My research holds potential benefits beyond academia. It aligns with South Africa’s National Development Plan, Vision 2030, which stresses inclusive, sustainable growth, poverty eradication, and food security. My work could contribute to these objectives by enhancing crop yields and encouraging sustainable farming practices. Additionally, it aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Zero Hunger (SDG 2), suggesting potential applications at local, national, and global scales.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

One of my proudest achievements includes successfully sequencing and isolating Naganishia randhawae, a relative of the Cryptococcus species. This was the first time a genome sequence for this species was accomplished. Notably, we found that this organism produced melanin on birdseed agar, a feature never reported before for this species, hinting at potential virulence mechanisms similar to those in other fungal pathogens.

This ground-breaking work was published in the high-impact journal, IMA Fungus (impact factor 8.044), and also shared at various local and international scientific conferences. The importance of this research was recognized when I received the Alex von Holy Prize for best postgraduate research in the field of microbiology at Wits University. This award, though unexpected, was a delightful surprise that reinforced my commitment to research excellence and further highlighted the significance of our work.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

As for my career aspirations, I envision myself becoming an NRF-rated researcher, making impactful contributions to the realm of microbial OMICS research. Over the years, I have nurtured a deep passion for research and honed my skills to handle large biological data through computational biology. These skills have prepared me to embark on projects that marry molecular biology and bioinformatics, unveiling vast future possibilities.

In addition to this, I believe in the power of community outreach and science communication. I aspire to take the knowledge and insights gained from my work and make them accessible to the broader public. By translating complex scientific concepts into language everyone can understand, I aim to spark interest in science, demystify the world of research, and inspire the next generation of scientists. This dual ambition – to contribute to my field at a high level and engage with the community – is what fuels my dedication and drive.

This work is licenced under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 South Africa (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 ZA) license. Please view the terms for republishing here.

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