Women of BGM - Not sacrificing my morals to succeed

Posted on August 19, 2022

In a 2019 The Conversation article, our very own Prof Brenda Wingfield discussed the importance of increasing the number of PhDs in South Africa from about 46 graduates per 1 million people in 2019, to 100 graduates per 1 million people (https://theconversation.com/why-phds-are-good-for-individuals-and-for-a-country-123935).

One person who hopes to help increase this number is Miss Ashleigh Van Heerden, a PhD student in the Malaria Parasite Molecular Laboratory in the Biochemistry Division.

We asked Ashleigh a few questions about her life and love for biochemistry. This is what she had to say, enjoy!

Q: Why did you decide to study biochemistry?
I enjoy learning about the intricate world around me, especially the microworld which we cannot see without certain instruments and I love people. For me, what better work is there than to learn about this microworld in order to help people?

Q: In your own opinion, why is biochemistry important?
The microworld is kind of like the wild west, you have the good, the bad and the ugly microbes; the bad microbes are constantly adapting to bullets (drugs) we are throwing at them and the ugly microbes, well, those are the nasty ones that have already adapted and become resistant to our best artillery. It is important to keep up our vigilance and learn and adapt faster than the bad and ugly microbes to prevent the next COVID-19 pandemic or worse black plague. Using biochemistry, genetics and microbiology in cohort to study our enemy and identify new and effective bullets (drugs) is the best way we can stay in the lead of this fight.

Q: Please tell us more about your research focus and how you came to the decision of following this research path.
My research focuses on antimalarial drug discovery by using machine learning to help us better understand and utilise the biological information we currently have on the malaria parasite to guide decision-making in drug discovery. Coming from a 3rd world country, our people suffer from diseases that most people in 1st world countries have already eliminated within their country. Diseases like malaria rob people of not only their health but also the opportunity to improve their circumstances and even worse it makes no distinction between young and old, as the majority of deaths caused by malaria are among children under the age of 5. Being that such deaths are entirely preventable, my desire was to join other brilliant scientists in the effort to completely eradicate malaria.

Q: What would you say are the highlights of your career so far?
When I was a teenager, I used to think that as I study more I will “know everything”, but that in reality will never be the case. As soon as I discover and learn more about the beautiful world around us, I am confronted with more questions and just how much we do not know about our world. It is quite exciting to be at the forefront of discovery research.

Q: Please give us a glimpse of your most recent research and why it is exciting:
As scientists, we generate a lot of biological data but are not fully utilising this information to its fullest potential. My research involves using machine learning to aid in identifying patterns within this vast biological data we have at our disposal to gain novel insights and make biological relevant decisions in antimalarial drug discovery. Machine learning is a continually evolving field and holds much promise not only in drug discovery but also in allowing us to better understand the biological systems we are studying.

Q: Describe a day in your life.
After focusing on data analysis and problem-solving, there is nothing better than going home to enjoy playing some online games or dungeons&dragons with my friends. Putting 100% effort into working is awesome, but not at the expense of burnout. Other times when I need some me-time, a book is a good way to unwind.

Q: What attributes do you think a scientist should possess in your field of study?
Passion to change things for the better. Critical thinking to identify flaws in reasoning. Perseverance to push yourself further despite the hurdles you face.

Q: What maxims/beliefs do you live by?
To not sacrifice my morals to succeed and to be kind to my fellow man.

Q: Who is your role model/mentor and why? 
Professor Lyn-Marie Birkholtz became my role model during one of her speeches about her work. She showed me that despite being in a 3rd world country, with hard work and continual motivation nothing is stopping you from achieving international excellence with the scientific work you do.

Q: What words of wisdom do you have for aspiring researchers, especially women and girls? 
Failures do not define you but serve as stepping stones to reach greater heights. Do not get discouraged, learn from failed attempts and you will be surprised by the woman you have become. Above all do not lose faith in your growth.

Published by Sonya September

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