NAS Featured scientist: Dr Dina Coertzen
Senior Postdoctoral fellow: Malaria Parasite Biology and Drug Discovery laboratory (M2PL), Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology
Q: Why did you choose to study biochemistry?
A: Ever since I can remember, I have always had a keen interest in understanding how things work on a molecular level, and as a result, I knew I wanted to study science. Although, as a first-year BSc student, I was still undecided on the discipline and enrolled for a Zoology degree. However, after my first biochemistry lecture: "The chemistry of life", I undoubtedly knew that this was the degree I wished to pursue. Therefore, I immediately changed my degree and have never looked back.
Q: Why is biochemistry important?
A: In my opinion, Biochemistry is the most fundamental of all the scientific disciplines. Without it, we would not have understood how our bodies metabolise food, how pathogens can invade our bodies and cause disease, and how plants synthesise. Moreover, our understanding of Biochemistry enables us to develop medicine to combat diseases and create sustainable food sources.
Q: How/why did you get involved in Malaria research?
A: My primary motivation and passion in building my career as a young scientist has always been to solve critical African-centered health and societal challenges by developing innovative and sustainable solutions. Malaria remains the most relevant and deadly parasitic disease, with challenging yet interesting biology creating an ever-evolving requirement of novel strategies to outsmart the parasite.
Q: Why do we need to celebrate/observe World Malaria Day (25 April)?
A: Although malaria remains the most important parasitic disease, there has been a steady decline in disease over the past decade through effective control programmes. However, with the immense focus on the pandemic over the past two years, management in malaria control programmes was widely neglected. As a result, a surge in malaria cases and widespread antimalarial drug resistance are reported at an alarmingly high rate for this preventable disease. Therefore, observing #WorldMalariaDay this year is more critical than ever. If we can create sufficient awareness of the importance of our research and its impact, we can motivate the rest of the world to help prioritise our efforts to eliminate it once and for all.
Q: Highlights of your career so far?
A: The highlights of my career are all the firsts:
The first time I observed crystals of the protein, I was trying to crystallise during my PhD. (I never solved the structure, but after two years of multiple failed attempts, this was a significant breakthrough for me).
The first time I travelled abroad to present my science at an international Gordon conference (and was awarded best talk at the conference).
The first time I saw my first author published in a scientific peer-reviewed journal.
Q: Please give us a glimpse of your most recent research.
A: My specific research focus uses multidisciplinary target- and phenotype-based drug discovery methods in a unique and complementary approach to identify novel hit compounds with antimalarial potential. By investigating these compounds' mechanistic and biological action on key biochemical processes required by the parasite for survival, I believe the integration of this work can guide the development of novel antimalarial therapeutic strategies and make a significant impact on malaria elimination under the broader scope of antimalarial drug discovery.
Q: Describe a day in the life of Dr Coertzen.
A: Having morning coffee and discussions with my colleagues always motivates me for the day. I aim to always use my time as efficiently as possible; therefore, I always try to plan what I want to achieve with my day and focus on that first. At the end of the day, I always hope to feel that I used my time productively and achieved what I set out to achieve.
Q: What qualities does a good scientist need?
A: Patience: Science never goes according to plan.
Perseverance: Stay positive; there is always a solution to a problem.
Passion: If you do what you love, you will be successful.
Q: What words/beliefs do you live by?
A: Several times in my life, I thought that I was not suited to pursue a science career until I read this quote "Never let your fears stand in the way of your dreams". By following that motto throughout my career, I have genuinely amazed myself at what I have been able to achieve.
Q: Who is your role model/mentor?
A: I have always been very fortunate to have three strong women in my life, my mom, my supervisor and my close friend, who has played a significant role in supporting me to become who I am today.
Q: Do you have any advice for prospective biochemists?
A: I always say a science degree is what you make of it. Know why you want to become a biochemist and what you want to do as a Biochemist.