School of Life Sciences

Cum laude microbiologist, Ms Sonali Sukreem.

Microbiologist Seeks New Ways to Treat Drug-Resistant Bacteria

A thesis investigating the bioactivity of crude biosurfactant extracts and biosurfactant-capped nanoparticles synthesised using marine sponge-associated bacteria resulted in Ms Sonali Sukreem being awarded her Master’s degree in Microbiology cum laude.

Supervised by Professor Hafizah Chenia, the Verulam local chose UKZN for her MSc studies not only as it was close to home but also because of the University’s academic excellence and innovative research programmes.

Sukreem’s research focused on finding new ways to treat drug-resistant bacteria, which has emerged as a major health concern worldwide owing to the incorrect use of antibiotics. These bacteria can form complex communities known as biofilms, which make infections hard to treat.

‘To combat this, I explored biosurfactants, which are compounds produced by microorganisms and combined them with metals to make effective nanoparticles capable of treating these infections,’ she said. ‘Biosurfactant compounds are of interest due to their unique characteristics which include their ability to be produced through “green” methods as well as their bioactive potential.’

Sukreem’s research focused on understanding and inhibiting biofilm formation as well as by interfering with bacterial communication (quorum sensing) as strategies to inhibit bacterial pathogenicity.

‘Quorum sensing is a communication phenomenon used by bacteria, therefore its inhibition can prevent pathogenesis,’ she explained.

Sukreem’s academic journey in microbiology and exposure to nanotechnology during her honours degree – for which she received a Certificate of Merit for her research – sparked her interest as she realised the potential of this field to develop innovative approaches to tackle critical issues faced in healthcare.

‘This research is exciting because it opens up new possibilities for treating infections more effectively and without relying solely on traditional antibiotics,’ said Sukreem. ‘Plus, using biosurfactants is eco-friendly and could have benefits for both the environment and human health in the future.’

With an MSc now under her belt, Sukreem is keen to gain work experience in the industry and looks forward to applying the knowledge and skills she’s acquired to improve the lives of others.

She thanked her parents and her partner for their support.

‘The future holds endless possibilities and I am excited to see where this journey takes me,’ she said.

‘I want to encourage young girls to dream big and not be afraid to follow a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Embrace your curiosity as you have the power to shape the future,’ added Sukreem.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Sethu Dlamini