‘You don’t have to have it all figured out at the beginning’

Posted on June 14, 2024

It was guidance from his lecturers when he was an undergraduate student and unsure of the direction he wanted to take that propelled Dr Abe Kasonga, now a senior lecturer in the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Department of Physiology, to be the kind of lecturer that lights the way for students.

“I love working with students,” he says. “It’s amazing to witness the development of the students as they progress through the years. I particularly enjoy working with postgraduate students, as I get to be involved in their mentorship and growth. I was fortunate to have some great lecturers in my time, and I hope to be that type of lecturer for my students.”

As a young academic, Dr Kasonga knows the uncertainty comes with deciding which career path to pursue.

“I found the first few years as a university student very intimidating,” he recalls. “I felt unsure about my choice of study and the direction I was going in. The lesson I learned is that you don’t have to have it all figured out at the beginning. I was fortunate to have had some great lecturers in my Biochemistry and Physiology modules. They got me interested in these modules – that’s when I first started thinking about research.”

Dr Kasonga has been working at UP since 2012 and obtained a PhD in Human Physiology in 2018. After completing his honours, he was employed as a technical assistant in the Department of Physiology and worked his way up to a position as senior lecturer. He’s also a member of the Physiological Society of Southern Africa and serves on the South African National Committee for the International Union of Physiological Sciences. 

His interest in physiology became apparent in high school, where he excelled at biology.

“It was one of the few subjects that fascinated me. I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in the biological sciences. At first, I dreamt of being a medical doctor, but I quickly realised this wouldn't be possible because of how queasy I get at the sight of blood.

“I developed a keen interest in physiology during my undergraduate years, and decided to pursue a postgraduate degree. In my honours year, I knew that this was a career that I was interested in pursuing. It was the first time I was exposed to research and I knew that it was what I wanted to keep doing. Cellular research, in particular, fascinates me, as one acquires insight into the cellular functions of the body – an insight that few ever get.”

In addition to guiding and mentoring his students, Dr Kasonga says he also enjoys travelling and networking with other researchers.

“I’ve been fortunate to travel to Italy, England, Germany, Austria and the US to present my research at international conferences and to network with other researchers,” he says. “I enjoy travelling and hope to get more opportunities to do so and present my research.”

His field of research is bone physiology.

“I’m interested in tackling afflictions of the bone and finding ways to improve bone health,” Dr Kasonga explains. “I have a particular interest in postmenopausal osteoporosis. Due to the decrease in oestrogen in postmenopausal women, their bones are more prone to degradation. This leaves them more susceptible to developing osteoporosis.

“Although there are treatment options available, many of them have side-effects or may not be suitable for all patients with postmenopausal osteoporosis. So my research team is looking at the use of alternative therapies that may be used. This may help reduce side-effects.

“We also have an interest in understanding why certain cancers spread to the bone. It is known that bone is a common site of metastasis for many cancers. Understanding why this is can lead to targeted therapies to prevent bone metastasis.”

Dr Kasonga’s work has earned him a National Research Foundation rating, which he takes as recognition that he’s on the right track, and is “motivation to keep working hard and producing quality research”. He attributes his success to his faith and his family.

“My faith in God gives me peace, purpose and direction. My wife’s love and belief in me keeps me motivated. My son is the light of my world and the reason I strive to improve myself.”

His advice for young people interested in the field is to start by reading scientific journals and staying informed on the latest research within the field.

“It’s important to stay updated on the latest advancements and breakthroughs,” Dr Kasonga says. “Secondly, find a mentor in the field. They can provide guidance on how to navigate the research landscape and enable you to make well-informed decisions about your career. I have been fortunate to have great mentors who have helped me get to where I am today.”

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