Youth Month 2023: Vuyisani Michael Rabela

Youth Month 2023: Vuyisani Michael Rabela

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 Vuyisani Michael Rabela is a Master’s student in Medical Physiology at Stellenbosch University. He is currently funded by the NRF for his studies.

How did your journey start?

I was born in the Eastern Cape (Sterkspruit) to a family of five. I am the fourth born. I grew up in the North-West Province (Klerksdorp) and attended primary and high school in Klerksdorp. After my matric, I went to the North-West University’s Mafikeng Campus to pursue my BSc programme where I studied Chemistry and Biochemistry. After graduating, I went on to pursue an Honours degree in Chemistry (unfortunately, it is incomplete) where I was also a laboratory assistant. I went back to varsity again a year later, but this time to do an Honours in Biochemistry. In 2021, I got funding from the NRF to do an MSc in Medical Physiology.

When I was still in primary, I wanted to be a pilot. However, when I got to high school, I realised that I loved biology (Natural Sciences) more than flying aeroplanes. When I was in Grade 10, I fell deeply in love with Life Sciences. Then, I had a teacher in Grade 12 who made sure that we enjoyed organic chemistry. That is when I realised that I love the combination of biology and chemistry. At the time, I had no idea how one could major with these together because I did not have a cell phone or access to the internet. A time came when Wi-Fi was introduced in our libraries, and that is when I started to do some research and found that the North-West University, which was closer to home, provided a course in Biochemistry. That is where my journey began. I am so grateful that from then, I never looked back. I would say that this is the path I envisioned growing up and I am content to be where I am.

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

I am very grateful to the NRF for their financial support because it is not easy being in varsity without any source of finances.

Since starting my MSc under NRF funding, I have made the following presentations at scientific meetings:

  • Rabela, VM., Blignaut, M., Huisamen, B. ‘’The establishment and characterization of a novel obese H9c2 cardiomyoblast cell model’’. Oral presentation, 49th Physiological Society of Southern Africa (PSSA) conference, Stellenbosch University, South Africa (4 to 7 September 2022).
  • Rabela, VM., Blignaut, M., Huisamen, B. ‘’The establishment and characterization of a novel obese H9c2 cardiomyoblast cell model’’. Poster presentation, 66th Annual Academic Day (AAD), Stellenbosch University, Tygerberg Medical Campus, South Africa (31 August to 01 September 2022).

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

I remember when I was doing my BSc undergraduate degree, there was a time I did not have a bursary and my parents could not afford to even pay for my rent. I had to fend for myself. One of the things that I remember was that I owed the university over R150 000. This took too much of a toll on my mental health and my academics because I started failing some modules. But I am so grateful that I did not give in, I kept on pushing and applying for possible funding. Fortunately, in my final year, I received NSFAS. However, this was not enough because I still owed the institution a lot of money. Because I was always knocking and applying, I was fortunate to get some funding from the Premier’s Office, where everything was paid for.

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

While my research expertise is in cancer biochemistry and biochemistry of natural products, I am currently doing research on cardiometabolic disorders. I think these are interconnected, and science is a broad subject that encompasses all these. My current project focuses on the effects of obesity on the premature ageing of the vasculature. It is well-established that oxidative and chronic inflammation that culminate from obesity is a major risk factor for developing cardiovascular diseases. My product is concerned with the establishment of high-throughput insulin resistance and senescent endothelial cells – once established, this model can be used to test nutraceuticals (Resveratrol and Buchu). In particular, we focus on the signalling pathway involving ataxia-telangiectasia mutated protein kinase.

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

The research theme is of national health importance and will contribute substantially to a body of academic literature and may inform local health and biomedical science guidelines. Altogether, the project is aimed at understanding and developing treatment options to increase the good health and well-being of people well into old age. This might herald a better future for adults suffering from chronic cardiometabolic diseases.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

There is nothing that makes me proud more than being in the final stages of my MSc. No one believed that I would continue with my academics. Even worse, my high school teachers and my parents had zero faith in me. They never thought I would complete my matric, let alone pass. But here I am today – a whole MSc candidate!

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I have always wanted to be a researcher (with a PhD), as such, I will be furthering my studies with a PhD starting from January 2024. However, I am going to do a PhD in Medical Biotechnology (cancer biotechnology). This study will form part of a South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Cancer Biotechnology where antibody technology and protein engineering will be used to develop cutting-edge and knowledge-driven immunotherapeutics using an intelligently designed SNAP-tag conjugation strategy, with the aim of paving a way to knowledge- and intellectual property-driven innovation for the manufacturing of African biopharmaceuticals for cervical cancer, which might herald a better future for patients. I believe that we need more application science in South Africa, which can solve a lot of challenges our country is currently facing.

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