School of Life Sciences

From Humble Beginnings to Formidable Geneticist

From Humble Beginnings to Formidable Geneticist

Ms Bongekile Ngobese, who was awarded her Master of Science in Genetics cum laude, grew up in the small village of Nqutu in northern KwaZulu-Natal, where she completed her matric at Ekucabangeni Secondary School.

Hard work was part of Ngobese’s everyday life.

‘I had to walk more than 20 km each day to get to school. After school, I had to take a 20 litre bucket down to the river to fetch water and then make a fire so we could cook. There was no electricity,’ she recalls.

Her Physical Science teacher, Mr Mthethwa, encouraged her to enrol at UKZN and she completed her BSc in Biochemistry and Genetics in 2016 and her BSc Honours in Medical Biochemistry in 2017.

Ngobese was actively involved in student life at the University. She was the only female representative on the Student Representative Council on the Westville campus and served as a Supplemental Instructor for the School of Life Sciences and the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science.

Her Master’s study analysed the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance genes and virulence genes in the two most common Campylobacter species, namely C. jejuni and C. coli, which are known to cause infection in humans.

This pathogen is transmitted through contaminated or undercooked meat and causes Campylobacteriosis (infection by the Campylobacter bacterium) in humans. Ngobese’s research isolated the pathogen from livestock faecal samples (such as chickens, cattle, goat, pigs and sheep), as these animals cause human infections.

Most laboratories shy away from investigating this pathogen, because it is challenging to isolate.  Furthermore, there is a paucity of published information on the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance and virulence genes in foodborne pathogens related to livestock in South Africa.

Ngobese’s research findings are very significant as Campylobacteriosis is a leading bacterial cause of foodborne infections and is one of the main public health problems in countries that are producers of livestock.

She hopes to design strategies to minimise, control and prevent infections caused by this pathogen in both humans and animals using the global One Health concept. One Health is an approach to designing and implementing programmes, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve improved public health outcomes.

Ngobese chose to purse her masters for her own personal development and the chance to work with talented researchers. ‘Through my masters, I have developed professional skills (like independence, and time management) and have been surrounded by colleagues who are highly motivated to achieve their goals,’ she said.

She is grateful to a number of people. ‘I would like to thank my supervisor, Dr Oliver Zishiri and one of his PhD students, Miss Samantha Reddy, for their support. I would also like to thank my brothers Mncedisi Kumalo, Thabo Wonder Mthali and Siyabonga Ngobese. My friends, Nomakhwezi Ntsele, Sunshine Myende, Phumla Hlengwa, Zamile Mbhele, Christian Ishimwe and Ntombi Benede have also been very supportive.’

Ngobese is currently working as a laboratory technologist at the UKZN HIV Pathogenesis Programme at the Medical School. Next year she hopes to purse PhD studies in HIV/ AIDS and TB.

Words: Sashlin Girraj

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan