Nastassja Koen: New nGAP member

22 October 2019 | Story Nastassja Koen. Photo David Emslie. Read time 4 min.
Nastassja Koen
Nastassja Koen

Nastassja joined nGAP in August 2019 having successfully applied for a Phase 5 position. She is a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health. She is also deputy head of the Division of Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, and co-heads the Psychiatric Genetics Group in the UCT Neuroscience Institute.

A born-and-bred Capetonian, I completed my primary schooling at Star of the Sea School in St James, before attending Herschel Girls’ Senior School in Claremont. My mother is a retired English teacher and a 25+ year veteran of Kensington High School in Maitland. My father is a law professor at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and I remember his writing up his PhD (some of it by hand!) when I was a young child. So I suppose an academic career was always on the cards for me!

I received generous bursary and scholarship support at Herschel Girls’; looking back, I have no doubt that this early investment paved the way for my career path. My parents have also been integral – despite both having taxing full-time jobs, they were really champions of my education, and were always on hand with advice, guidance and late-night homework assistance!

After matriculating, I completed an MBChB at UCT, graduating with honours. Early on in my studies, I found myself drawn to the academic aspects of medicine, particularly in psychiatry and mental health, which ultimately led me to pursue a PhD in this department at UCT. As a young and inexperienced doctoral student, the strong mentorship I received, particularly from my supervisor and HoD, Professor Dan Stein, was invaluable. The postgraduate journey can be shaped significantly by the degree of support, engagement and encouragement you receive from your supervisors and mentors, and I was very fortunate in this respect.

My PhD thesis focused on transgenerational traumatic stress and related disorders in a unique, multidisciplinary South African birth cohort study (the Drakenstein Child Health Study, PI: H Zar). I have been fortunate recently to secure my first collaborative NIH/H3Africa grant as a Multiple PI to expand this work in the Drakenstein study cohort. I am also currently a fellow in the Global Initiative for Neuropsychiatric Genetics Education in Research (GINGER) of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Broad Institute, within the Neuropsychiatric Genetics in African Populations (NeuroGAP) programme. Given the under-representation of populations of African ancestry in global genomics research, I am very excited to be involved in such work – both from a scientific perspective and from the perspective of global mental health and translational potential.

In my spare time, I enjoy hiking, running (I’m a very amateur half-marathoner) and occasionally revisiting my much-neglected piano. For me, family really is first. My parents, my partner, David, and our very large extended “clans” are a steadfast source of support as I navigate the – often choppy – waters of academia.

At this stage in my career, being involved in nGAP is a wonderful opportunity – not only in terms of my professional development, but also in terms of connecting with other “nGAPpers”, building my capacity as a future mentor, and contributing to UCT’s vision of transformation and academic excellence in Africa.

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