A good scientist needs to be able to adapt to an ever-changing world

Posted on March 24, 2022

NAS Featured scientist: Dr Yolandy Lemmer
Extraordinary Lecturer: Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology, University of Pretoria
Research Group Leader: Human Molecular Diagnostics and Omics, CSIR and Extraordinary Associate Professor: Preclinical Drug Development Platform, North-West University.

Q: Why did you choose to study biochemistry?
I initially studied BSc to obtain admission to medical school, but as the first year progressed and with the introduction of laboratory practicals, I fell in love with science. I then sought the most suitable combination between Chemistry and Biology - Biochemistry.

Q: Why is biochemistry important?
In my opinion, Biochemistry is the "jack of all trades" in science. Being part of an ever-changing world where the developments in society and technology are fast-paced, the field equips you with the broad knowledge base in science to quickly adapt. In my experience, I had to change fields of study in a matter of months, and without the broad knowledge base, it would have been challenging to do.

Q: How did you get involved in Tuberculosis (TB) research?
In my third year, I was offered an undergraduate laboratory assistant position in the TB research group of ProfJan Verschoor (former head of UP's Department of Biochemistry). After that, I was exposed to the detrimental effects of TB in society and with actual patients. This culminated in me being involved in the field of TB for the past two decades.

Q: Why do we need to observe World TB Day?
TB is the forgotten pandemic in our country, with more reported deaths than COVID in the same year. The initiative provides the opportunity to create awareness on a broad base, from policymakers to the general public. The more we are exposed to information, the more likely the increase in the contribution to all levels of the disease, i.e. from bench to bedside.

Q: Highlights of your career so far?
Apart from obtaining my PhD, the breakthroughs in the lab are highlights in my career. Seeing how a TB infected animal recovers with our nanotechnology therapeutics to how we improve our TB diagnostic assays one step at a time makes the efforts all worthwhile. We even had promising results with our new COVID-19 vaccine, showing again our resilience to adapt in the field of science.

Q: Please give us a glimpse of your most recent research.
Given the new COVID-19 pandemic, we have focused on inhalable therapeutics and a novel COVID-19 vaccine with industrial partners. We are currently in the pre-clinical phases of these projects, with very encouraging results thus far.

Q: Describe a day in the life of Dr Lemmer.
Given my role as a Research group leader, the duties include the management of the projects and team members on a day-to-day basis, the planning, financing and execution of strategic direction and direct industry engagement relating to the focus areas. I also contribute on a technical level to the training of the staff and students in animal handling and animal models and immunological assays to confirm the intended outcomes.

Q: What qualities does a good scientist need?
A good scientist, in my view, needs to be able to adapt to an ever-changing environment, i.e. learn new things. Be willing to admit that experiments rarely give the intended outcome and be able to pick yourself up and start again tomorrow.

Q: What words/beliefs do you live by?
There will be very little to be humble and thankful for without a good spiritual and family life to offset our stressful careers.

Q: Who is your role model/mentor?
My role models have changed depending on my life and career phases. Whether it is my mother, on how to handle sick children, or Prof Verschoor, on how to approach a failed experiment, I take the bits and pieces I even pick up from strangers showing kindness in a shop and hope that I will become a better person at the end of the day.

Q: Do you have any advice for prospective biochemists?
I usually tell people that ask about my career choice that if there is nobody to discover and investigate new theories and ways to improve people's health, animals and the environment, there will be very few breakthroughs for the generations to come. 

- Author Martie Meyer
Published by Martie Meyer

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