Mauritz Venter, BSc Genetics and Human Physiology, BSc (Hons) Genetics. Currently in the process of a PhD in Plant Biotechnology at the University of Stellenbosch
Did you study genetics in the science or human sciences sector?
Both. During my BSc I studied the fundamental basics of genetics covering human/medical, plant and animal science. It is only at a postgraduate (MSc and PhD) level that a student specialises in a specific field, usually in human or plant science. There are however many areas of specialisation within the basic science sectors, eg, genetic studies of cancer, animal reproduction, psychiatric disorders, sport science, disease resistance in plants, improvement of wine quality (also known as wine biotechnology) and many more. Currently I am in the plant sciences (plant biotechnology) sector isolating genetic "tools" for the manipulation of grapevines to improve fruit quality.
How did you end up studying genetics? What and who inspired you along the way?
My subjects at school were biology, maths, accounting and science. During the last months of grade 12, I was still not sure what I wanted to do. I eventually decided on a BSc with the option to pursue medicine.
My subjects were genetics, biochemistry and human physiology and during my second year I developed a keen interest in medical genetics.
Plans for medicine did not work out, so instead, I started with an Honours degree in genetics and found that hot-shot terms like "biotechnology" and "molecular biology" represented a mixture of genetics and biochemistry as well as microbiology.
During that time "blue-sky" projects like cloning and the determination of the human genome (to identify all the genes and their locations on all the chromosomes) were going on. I was fascinated, and that was only the beginning for me.
I started my Masters degree at the Institute of Plant Biotechnology. My project supervisor, together with the support of my parents, inspired me to stay in the scientific game and to become a geneticist.
What kind of person do you think is suited to a career in your field of expertise?
I would say a person should:
be a team player;
be able to put science on paper, that is to write regularly and be as concise as possible when presenting his/her results;
always plan ahead (not only is the planning of experiments important but also the preparation of back-up strategies if experiments go wrong); and
read a lot and be up-to-date with the latest developments and trends in the science sector.
South Africa is considered a third-world country. Would you say that this affects the quality of our genetics research?
Not at all. On the basis of money and human resources, we are behind countries like the United States and Germany, but the quality of genetic (and other molecular biology) research is of the highest international standards.
This can be seen in the publication records of South African scientists. Scientific research can only be published in an international journal when the work is new and it has been reviewed by scientists who are specialists in their field from all over the world. Some South African scientists have had opportunity to widely publish their research in these journals.
Not only do we have top-notch academic researchers, but the government has decided to invest millions of rands in helping to start genetic (and biotech) companies. This will certainly strengthen South Africa's position as a competitive key player in the international biotechnology arena.
What words of warning and encouragement do you have for someone who wants to study genetics?
Don'tt worry about specialising in the genetics of plants, humans or animals during the first few years of study. The basic research skills (genetics and molecular biology) can be used for any living organism.
Unfortunately, in most cases, to have the relative freedom to do independent research in an area of special interest, one has to have a Doctorate or at least a Masters degree in genetics (or a related field e.g. biotechnology) and this involves between six to ten years of studying!
As with the information technology (IT) boom, it is envisaged that biotechnology (genetics, biochemistry) will play a much more significant and crucial role in the 21st century. Although the future is unpredictable, if you become part of the genetics revolution, you are bound to have an exciting and challenging career.
Young Science Communicators Writing Initiative:
In an initiative to offer a platform to exercise skills in science communication, PUB commissioned a group of young scientists to write popular articles on various topics relating to biotechnology applications. Read their on articles on topics including sustainable energy, aquaculture, palaeogenomics, and more... Click here to view.
Previous PUB Quarterly Newsletters:
Shedding Light on Human Genetic Diversity
A paper detailing the the Southern African Genome Sequencing Project and its results was published in the journal Nature.
A range of teaching aids are available in a number of different languages
Interested in a career in the exciting field of biotechnology?
Find out more!