'Science is an invaluable tool …[to] improve our communities!' This is the firm belief of Thokozani Sikhosana, an MSc Biochemistry student at the University of Pretoria (UP) recently selected as the Southern Africa Network for Biosciences (SANBio) student ambassador for Southern Africa. Her role as student ambassador includes explaining the SANBio mission and promoting Biosciences in Southern Africa.
Thokozani is a true ambassador who not only hails from both the departments of Genetics and Biochemistry in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences but who also supports the SANBio vision of a Southern African biosciences network working to improve the livelihoods of all inhabitants. The network would facilitate innovation and support the development of a knowledge-based economy in Southern Africa.
She believes that the many challenges such as malnutrition and the spread of poverty related diseases also provide many opportunities for improvement. 'I firmly believe that many African problems can be solved by science – and especially by women in science. Take Prof Evelyn M Witkin who was awarded the National Medal of Science for her work on DNA mutagenetics and DNA repair,' she explains.'
'I enjoy the thrill of producing experimental results. Being in the laboratory is already fulfilling in itself, even when expected results are elusive. This merely implies that we need to approach the problem from a novel direction. I would advise anyone interested in a scientific career to run with their ideas. Don’t hold back and never give up! Your background does not dictate where you are going in life, only your determination. As a passionate young scientist, I feel we must utilise all our resources, learn and develop under the guidance of excellent scientists and contribute to human and animal health,' she concludes excitedly.
As an aspiring young scientist Thokozani enrolled in the BSc Honours programme in Biochemistry in 2014 with Prof Christine Maritz-Olivier, who heads the Tick-borne diseases group in the Department of Genetics. In 2015, she enrolled for an MSc in Biochemistry, again with Prof Maritz-Olivier, focusing on antigens as potential anti-tick vaccines for livestock. This field of research spans from antigen production, vaccine formulation to animal vaccination trials.
Thokozani explains, 'All the above aim to improve animal health and food security through biotechnology. I have been lucky to produce four antigens, one using a eukaryotic and three in a prokaryotic expression system. One antigen was tested in a small-scale cattle vaccine trial and significantly affected the feeding of female ticks, their egg laying ability and the fecundity of the offspring. A vaccine against ticks, and specifically Rhipicephalus microplus, will provide targeted tick control for emerging farmers in areas with acaridan resistance. Rhipicephalus microplus transmits lethal bacteria such as Babesia bovis (Asiatic redwater), adapts easily to different geographical areas and rapidly spread to acaridan, making it the most economically important tick species.'
As Thokozani explains, economic losses due to this tick species impact both small-scale and commercial farmers affecting the job security of 2.2 million workers. In areas already affected by malnutrition, ticks further burden resource-poor communities.