Women of BGM - Lead, follow or get out of the way

Posted on August 05, 2022

As a way of celebrating the month of Women, each week we will be profiling a woman researcher from BGM.

This week we celebrate Prof Brenda Wingfield. Prof Wingfield attended school in Zimbabwe, obtained her BSc in Pietermaritzburg, her B.Sc. Med. (Hons) at UCT, her Masters at the University of Minnesota and her PhD from the University of Stellenbosch.

She has held research and lecturing positions at UCT, Stellenbosch and the University of the Free State and is currently a Professor in the Genetics Division at the University of Pretoria. Prof Wingfield in an NRF A-rated researcher and has published more than 300 research papers and trained over 40 Masters and 40 PhD students. 

We asked Prof Wingfield a few questions about her life and research. Enjoy!

Q: Why did you decide to study genetics?
I had a very good Biology teacher at High School, I really enjoyed Biology and was particularly interested in the Genetics that we were taught and this inspired me to choose to study Genetics in Pietermaritzburg at what was then the University of Natal.

Q: In your own opinion, why is genetics important?
Genetics is essential to our understanding of how organisms’ function as it is the genes of an organism that code for the proteins and RNA that underpin all the features of an organism.  Genetics is thus important across many disciplines in Health and Natural and Agricultural Sciences.

Q: Please tell us more about your research focus and how you came to the decision of following this research path?
I hold a research chair in fungal genomics.  I have spent my career studying fungi that cause tree disease. I realised that having access to the whole genome sequences of these economically important pathogens would allow us to answer questions that we have not previously been able to address. Thus, ten years ago I launched a program focused on fungal genomics.  I was successful in applying for a DSI NRF SARChI chair and this has provided funding for me to follow this research path.

Q: What would you say are the highlights of your career thus far?
I have had many highlights in my career, one always appreciates awards and these should be celebrated.  The successes of my students are always a highlight of my year, particularly the graduation of PhD students.

Q: Please give us a glimpse of your most recent research and why it is exciting.
Some of the most exciting results we have had are with regards to the genome wide association studies we are in the process of completing.  These are exciting because we have identified some genes that are potentially important in pathogenicity that have not been previously documented as such.  Understanding how a pathogen causes disease is one of the first steps in being able to control the disease caused by the pathogen.  Genes that are known to be involved in pathogenicity can be used as targets for controlling the pathogen.

Q: Describe a day in your life.
The wonderful thing about my working life is that very few days are the same.  Some days I spend all day writing, doing data analysis and looking at genome sequence data and answering E-mails.  Other days I spend having discussions with collaborators and students.  Yet other days I will spend travelling to conferences, some national and others international – I thus get to see many parts of the world, making presentations and discussing my work with scientists all over the world.  I also go on field trips to collect fungi and get to see some really remote places.

Q: What attributes do you think a scientist should possess in your field of study?
I think you need to be very passionate about your field of study.  This means that you are likely thinking about this pretty much all the time.  That your research should excite you in way that it really is not “work” but fun – at least most of the time.

Q: What maxims/beliefs do you live by?
Lead, follow or get out of the way. 
If you are not having fun (at least some of the time) doing your work you are doing something wrong – consider changing what you are doing.

Q: Who is your role model/mentor and why?
I have had many role models and mentors over my life, from parents, school teachers, university lecturers, line managers, collaborators, friends and family.  Make sure you have a strong network, people who are further along in their careers as well as people who are younger than you.  People who are involved in your discipline and people important to your day to day life.

Q: What words of wisdom do you have for aspiring researchers, especially women and girls? 
One of the most important decisions you will make in your life is your choice of a life partner, I have had the privilege of a husband who has been my strongest supporter and I would not have been as successful in my career without him by my side.

Published by Sonya September

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