Researching cancer in Bermuda
At parties, Tshepiso Makhafola doesn’t mention his job.
“It’s a bit of a mood killer,” the biomedical researcher laughed.
In his experience, people expect scientists to be boring, old, usually with a long white beard and nerdy.
“I’m actually a bit of a loudmouth,” the 31-year-old laughed.
“I talk a lot. I think some people get irritated by that, but that’s all right.”
Dr Makhafola was one of 45 scientists who visited Bermuda for a genetic research conference at the Fairmont Southampton last week.
The assistant professor at Mangosuthu University of Technology was eager to discuss research proving how common South African plants, such as flame creeper, could help fight gene mutation diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.
“I am from the village of Ga Ledwaba in the Limpopo province in northern South Africa,” he said. “It is quite common there.”
He had no idea flame creeper could be used to treat illness until he started his research.
“It can be quite exciting to go to the villages and see what plants people use for traditional medicine, what they are used for and how they are prepared,” he said.
South Africa is a great platform because it hosts a third of the world’s plants, he said. However, funds are often handed to big farming corporations instead of researchers.
The long hours are another downside to his career.
“You work until you’re done,” he said “If you have to work 15 hours straight, that’s what you do.
“It’s a very competitive field. You have to really push yourself, otherwise there is always some other researcher at the door looking to do better than you.”
He finds it amusing whenever outsiders imply he’s earning a huge salary.
“I’m still aspiring to be middle-class,” he joked. “This is not something you do for money. You have to do it for the love of science.”
A lot of people, including his parents, don’t really get what it is that he does.
“Every time I go home they say, ‘What is it you do again?’. They don’t really understand, but they’re okay with that.”
He used to be a doubter of traditional medicine, but he’s more open to it now that he’s seen the benefits of the laboratory.
“I do take some supplements now, such as turmeric,” he said. “That is supposed to be a very good antioxidant. I also take something to protect my liver. That way I don’t have to feel guilty when I drink a glass of wine.”
Dr Makhafola got interested in plants and biochemistry in university.
“My grandparents had a garden, but my parents did not,” he said. “I wasn’t really exposed to plants.
“I liked the challenge and I found the courses interesting. My area was more cancer, but bringing plants and cancer together has been quite interesting.”
Limited research facilities in South Africa mean he sometimes has to collaborate with universities overseas.
He was doing gene splicing work at the University of Nottingham in England last year, when he met conference organiser Carika Weldon, a Bermudian biomedical researcher in Leicester.
They are now looking to collaborate on a project comparing Bermuda and South Africa aloe species.
“Ultimately, we will be looking at the therapeutic potential of these aloes in cancer cells,” Dr Weldon said.
• For more information about the annual Bermuda Principles Impact on Splicing Conference visit www.bermudaprinciples.org
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