NAS Featured scientist
Prof Lucy Moleleki - Associate Professor in Microbiology in the Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology
Q: Why did you choose to study host-microbe interactions?
A: When I was a BSc undergraduate student, most students desperately wanted to improve human health. Personally, I did not have the aspiration to join the medical field. While I could see the importance of the medical field in saving lives, my fear of working with sick people inhibited me from venturing into this field of study. At a later stage, I learned that I could still enjoy studying how microbes such as viruses, bacteria and fungi cause disease and how their hosts defend themselves, by working with plants, not human beings.
Q: Why is Science, (including Microbiology) important?
A: There is a saying that ‘medicine can cure you one day, but plants can save your life every day’. Indeed, hunger is one of the main challenges facing humans today. For this reason, countries world-wide, whether developing or developed, have come up with strategic goals known as sustainable development goals to enable them to achieve a better life for all. Of the 17 development goals, hunger is the second most important. Now, it goes without saying that plants are right at the heart of the food chain. And, the biggest threat to plants, next to abiotic threats is biotic threats in the form of microbes such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and many others.
Q: Please share some of the highlights of your career so far.
A: My first and most valued highlight is the publication of my PhD work in the most prestigious science journal Nature. Other than this, most of the highlights of my career have been at the University of Pretoria (UP). For, it is here that I started my research group just after I completed my PhD. At UP, I have had the joy of working with highly motivated postgraduate students and good infrastructure support. Some of the highlights include being nominated and becoming a finalist for the NSTF emerging researcher award (2015), being nominated and winning the Biotech Fundi Capacity Development Award (2017), and more recently being nominated and selected as a Fellow of the Pan African Scientific Research Council (2021).
Q: What is your current research focus?
A: The focus of my research is on plant microbes that cause disease and affect the yield of potato plants. These include oomycetes that cause root rot, nematodes that cause root-knot and bacteria that cause soft rot diseases of potato plants. For both the microbe and the host (potato plants) we study information embedded in the genome, transcriptome and proteome. For the microbes, we establish ‘weapons’ that these use to inflict damage on their host. And using various tools, we knock out these weapons to see whether the microbe can still cause disease. For the host, we determine what ‘surveillance’ systems plants put in place for detection and protection against microbes.
Q: Please describe a day in the life of Prof Moleleki. What does the work of a microbiologist entail?
A: As an early career researcher, most of my days were spent in the laboratory conducting experiments. I still remember days waiting for that gel picture and the exhilaration of obtaining the results I hoped for and many times the disappointment of a blank gel without a result! That is the roller coaster life of a researcher!!! How I miss those days! Now I am mostly confined to my desk and my experience of this roller coaster of being a researcher is through my postgraduate students. These are shared through regularly scheduled meetings and sometimes – the best - is when the students just walk in to share whatever findings they have just discovered. So, a big part of my week is spent talking to students. This includes lecturing at the undergraduate level and the administration that goes with teaching. Research meetings with my postgraduate students, reading their research chapters, draft manuscript, reports etc., applying for research funds (a necessary pain).
Q: What qualities does a good scientist need?
A: Perseverance! In our field, things don’t always work the first time. So in most cases, one has to try different things to get results. Observant. The best results are those that you were not looking for. Being observant means the ability to recognise and capture unexpected patterns. A keen desire to learn! As an academic, I am as good as a student. Every day I am learning and attempting to broaden my horizon, to exert myself beyond my current skills or knowledge. And of course a questioning mind. And finally, integrity.
Q: Advice to women and girls in science
A: Love what you do, but always maintain a good balance between work, family and the rest of ‘life’. Enjoy the challenges and aspire to conquer them, but never let them drown you. In every grey cloud, there is a silver lining.
Q: Do you think there are enough opportunities for women and girls in science? How can it be improved?
A: As far as undergraduate study is concerned, there are sufficient opportunities for young girls and women in general. If I look at my second-year class, the number of female vs male students is more or less the same, or it could even be that there are more female students. The numbers of female vs male students are not as high at a full professor, HoD and higher leadership positions. However, it is encouraging to see that in the last 10 to 20 years, the numbers of leading women researchers have increased significantly and more and more women are in leadership positions at universities. In my mind, the biggest support and interventions can be focused on supporting women in the early career levels. This is where women face the most challenges such as starting a family, raising young children while at the same time trying to establish themselves as teachers and researchers.
Q: What words/beliefs do you live by?
A: Treat everyone with respect.