Maria Mabyalwa Mudau is a Senior Medical Scientist/Lecturer/PhD Student: At the Division of Human Genetics, National Health Laboratory Service, and School of Pathology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
Tell us about yourself – A brief biography on your place of birth, educational history (high school and higher institution), work etc…
I was born in Pretoria, spent most of my childhood in Polokwane and later moved to my father’s place in Venda where I attended high school. I matriculated from Patrick Ramaano Secondary School in Nzhelele. I then went to the University of Venda to study my first degree of a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Microbiology. That was followed by my second degree, a BSc (Honours) in Microbiology. I then moved to the University of the Free State to do my master’s degree in Biotechnology. Currently, this year in 2020, I am doing my final year of my part-time PhD degree in Human Genetics at the University of the Witwatersrand. I also work full time as a Senior Medical Scientist and my primary role is to perform and review genetic tests for genetic disorders. Other duties involve supervising students and Intern Medical Scientists as well as Junior Medical Scientists.
Why did you choose this career path and what influenced you to pursue it?
Since I passed maths and science in matric, I was advised to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree. Towards the end of the Bachelor’s degree, I realised that the knowledge gained was very broad and just a starting point to pursuing a career in science. I decided to pursue postgraduate studies to equip me with more knowledge to build a successful career in science. Upon completion of my master’s degree, I then applied at the National Health Laboratory Service as an Intern Medical Scientist. This is a two-year training programme for one to become a registered Medical Scientist with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). I registered with HPCSA as a Medical Scientist (In Human Genetics), that’s when i fell in love with Human Genetics and I decided to pursue my PhD studies in Human Genetics. My thirst for knowledge has always inspired me to continue learning. The rate at which new information is generated in the scientific field always leaves me feeling less knowledgeable and increases my urge to learn new things.
What average marks in matric (maths and science) are required to study this degree in university?
65% and above is needed in maths and science.
Did you always intend to be a scientist, if not, what was your dream career?
Studying toward a Bachelor of Science upon completion of my matric led me to think I would be doing something in science, but I was just not sure what that would be. So currently medical science is my career and I can’t think of being another kind of scientist. I would now say being a Medical Scientist is my dream career.
At present, what are you working on?
As a Senior Medical scientist, I perform various diagnostic testing for a number of genetic disorders. I also review results and authorise final patients’ reports that are sent out to the hospitals.
As a Lecturer, I teach undergraduate Molecular Medicine students and postgraduate students doing Honours in Human Genetics and Masters in Genetic Counselling. My lectures cover chromosomal abnormalities, genetic variation, and DNA profiling, amongst other things. I also supervise research projects for honour’s students and master’s students, as well as intern and junior Medical Scientists.
As a PhD Student, my project is focused on developing a diagnostic test for a group of developmental disorders called RASopathies. These are disorders caused by mutations in the genes that are involved in the RAS/MAPK pathway, this pathway is critical in the regulation of cells involved in normal development. Currently no genetic test exists for RASopathies due to lack of genetic data for these disorders in patients of African ancestry. My study involves utilising a new technology called ‘Next Generation Sequencing’ to sequence these patients’ DNA, in order to generate mutation profiles that are very useful for molecular genetics test development.
What is your opinion on female representation in the biotechnology industry (specifically your field)?
We need more ladies to be medical scientists especially at the principal level. Currently there is little variety in principal scientists that we have in the field of Human Genetics.
What is the biggest challenge you have encountered so far in your journey as a scientist and how did you overcome it?
I would say the lack of resources, such as finances, to pursue research, as well as the lack of experienced researchers to supervise and mentor junior scientists. I have also found it challenging to study part-time while working full time. It has not been an easy road, as diagnostic work can be overwhelming, but the thirst for knowledge pushed me to study further and do research. I registered for my PhD and that allowed me to apply for the NRF-Thuthuka funding for the PhD-Track, which was fortunately successful. That’s when doing research became easier because I could order my research reagents and control the number of patients I needed to enrol in my research.
Which undergraduate degree should someone enrol in, in order to become a specialist in your field?
To become a specialist in my field means to be a Principal Scientist in Human Genetics.
It starts with a third-year average mark of 65% or greater, with at least one major in a bachelor’s degree in a biologically-related discipline (genetics, physiology, human biology, microbiology, biochemistry etc.). This needs to be followed by a BSc Honours (Human Genetics), a master’s degree in Human Genetics, registration with HPCSA as a Medical Scientist and then achieving a PhD degree in Human Genetics.
Share a turning point or defining moment in your work as a scientist?
For me a turning point was when I eventually registered for my PhD and secured funding to do research. Research and acquiring new knowledge is everything for a senior scientist. That allowed me the opportunity to supervise students under my research and also travel abroad and locally to attend scientific meetings and courses. The defining moment was during the recruitment of patients and their relatives for my study. I realised what an impact this research is having. Parents realised that they are not the only ones whose child has a genetic disorder. Many people in our communities do not know what genetic disorders are until, somehow, they are affected by a genetic disorder. Even so, we still see that parents blame each other for having a child with a genetic disorder. This begs the need for education in simpler terms using African languages that our rural communities understand.
So, during the recruitment clinics for my research, I picked up that when I explained my research to the patients and their relatives using the language they understand, they actually had more questions and they were engaging more than when English is used. This begs the need for more genetics health professionals that are of African ancestry, as this will assist in the language barrier that we have observed. There is a need to expand genetics teaching and training to other hospitals, as currently Human Genetics Clinics are available through academic hospitals only. This will help in identifying these disorders earlier in life so the necessary management and care can be offered.
What is your advice to young, aspiring female scientists and students?
Be sure studying medical science is your passion, be sure becoming medical scientist is your passion. I have come to realise that if you are not passionate about this and you are doing it just for employment, you might be very unhappy and miserable. Love the field, not the remuneration.
What is your next move career wise and what are you most looking forward to?
Upon completion of my PhD, I will have one of the requirements needed for one to become a Principal Scientist, which is what I am working towards. I am looking forward to graduating and having this PhD ‘in the bag’. This will be followed by more funding applications and student supervisions so that we can do research that really impacts our communities, especially in government state hospitals. I would like to implement ways to undertake quality genetic diagnostic tests in a cost-effective manner, so that many patients benefit and get all the healthcare and management they need for their genetic disorders.