Once-in-a-lifetime fellowship

30 November 2018 | Story Kim Cloete. Photo Robyn Walker. Read time 7 min.
Young scientist Mandy Mason says being based at the IDM has broadened her understanding of how science operates.
Young scientist Mandy Mason says being based at the IDM has broadened her understanding of how science operates.

Emerging young South African scientist Mandy Mason, from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM), is looking forward to digging deep into the field of tuberculosis (TB) and broadening her network and knowledge after being selected as a Crick African Network (CAN) Fellow.

Mason is one of five young African scientists to scoop one of CAN’s first African Career Accelerator Awards, which are designed to help early-career researchers make the transition to leading their own research groups in Africa.

The five scientists, from UCT and other CAN partner institutions in Africa, will work on projects to tackle infectious diseases prevalent on the African continent. The call is supported by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund.

“I’m thrilled and honoured to be invited to be one of the first fellows. It promises to be a tight-knit group of young academics and I’m looking forward to moving ahead with the programme,” said Mason.

She explained that the programme funding requires fellows to propose a project with group leaders at the Francis Crick Institute in London. Mason’s research centres on improving understanding of the biology of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), the bacterium that causes TB.

By investigating a wide range of bacteria with mutations, she hopes to find some that are more susceptible to being killed by both new and existing drugs.

A major advantage of her fellowship is the mentorship that will be provided by globally respected researcher Dr Luiz Carvahlo, who is based at the Francis Crick Institute, and Professor Valerie Mizrahi, director of UCT’s IDM.

Valuable feedback

Mason has already taken the first step in the journey by participating in an intensive training workshop held recently near Cape Town. Research group leaders flew in from London to attend.

“It was such a generous engagement. There was some hard questioning and constructive criticism. I’ve already received valuable feedback to my work and it has challenged me to go further.”

Mason will split the two-year fellowship equally between stints at UCT and the Francis Crick Institute. She is also keen to make the most of the science technology platforms (STPs) at the institute, which offer resources and training for technology-heavy aspects of the project.

 

“It is important for early-career scientists on the continent to become part of a community of African researchers that work towards common goals to tackle diseases of poverty.”

The CAN programme will select 18 fellows over a three-year period. Mason sees this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and is encouraging other researchers to apply for the next two rounds.

The deadline for the expression of interest for the next round is 1 January 2019, with the requirement that full applications be submitted by 1 February 2019.

The fellowships invest in early-career researchers who have demonstrated strong scientific and leadership potential, a well as a commitment to continuing their research on the African continent. They need to be have attained their PhD and have a strong track record of research.

“It is important for early-career scientists on the continent to become part of a community of African researchers that work towards common goals to tackle diseases of poverty. Science is not done in isolation. They all learn from each other,” said CAN director Professor Robert Wilkinson.

Fellows undertake research that can be defined as a biomedical study of infectious diseases of poverty, with an emphasis on tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS, but also extending to neglected tropical diseases or non-communicable diseases with an infection component.

Mason said her very worthwhile experience at the IDM had propelled her to apply for the fellowship.

“The IDM is an incredible academic and scientific interface. We engage not only with other scientists, but also with clinicians, epidemiologists [and] social anthropologists as well as being given the opportunity to be involved in community outreach and engagement programmes.

“My understanding of how science operates has been broadened by being based at the IDM.”

Incredible burden of suffering

Mason is joined in the fellowship by other fellows at the Crick Institute’s five CAN partner institutions: UCT and Stellenbosch University, the UK Medical Research Council/Uganda Virus Research Institute (MRC/UVRI) and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) Uganda Research Unit, the University of Ghana and the Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit in The Gambia, which also represents the West African Global Health Alliance.

The fellows will work on projects which include improving strategies for the control and spread of malaria, a focus on children who get TB repeatedly to understand if genetic causes make them more prone to developing the active disease, and understanding the strains of HIV that are circulating in West Africa.

For her part, Mason is aware of the huge need to crack open new ways to both prevent and treat TB, which is the leading cause of death in South Africa. Treatment for tuberculosis is very long and needs to be taken for at least six months.

“TB is a disease that disproportionately affects vulnerable populations in South Africa, and results in an incredible burden of suffering on people who are already in difficult socio-economic circumstances. I hope, thorough my work, to contribute in some way to effect a shortened and durable cure for this disease.”

Mason also hopes that her two-year fellowship will help her to apply what she has learnt within an African context.

“I’m looking forward to bringing my experiences home and seeing what best fits our circumstances. I would like our science to be informed by our local needs. If I can be part of that, it would be so fulfilling.”


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