Having a knack for understanding biological systems but hating the sight of blood might not make for a good medical doctor; however, as Dr Tovhowani Ramulongo is finding out, nothing stands in her way of being an excellent molecular biologist.
Dr Tovhowani Ramulongo credits the CSIR for her decision to become a researcher, “During my final undergraduate year, I developed a significant interest in molecular biology. A CSIR bursary enabled me to be part of Stellenbosch University’s Molecular Biology Honours Programme. During my internship year at the CSIR, I was exposed to experts in the field and I realised that I love research – and that I am even pretty good at it!”
Ramulongo joined the CSIR in May 2020 and immediately immersed herself in the diagnostic processing of Covid-19 samples, looking at ribonucleic acid (RNA) extraction and reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), and analysing results, managing data and doing research on the virus’ evolution.
“Most of my time is spent in the lab, having conversations with microbes. But there are days where I must read articles, design experiments, do computer- based analysis and write reports,” she says.
Understanding the virus
She explains, “The global Covid-19 pandemic has raised the awareness about the danger posed by coronaviruses. We have seen how easy such viruses change. Just a minor change in the genomic information can have a drastic impact on the protective immunity that might have been conferred through infection or vaccination. I am specifically looking at how this happens during the course of infection in an individual and/or as the virus spreads between individuals.”
Apart from the socioeconomic chaos brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, global concern has also focused on the rate at which the virus strain changes. Ramulongo’s current focus is to understand exactly that.
The potential impact of this research is obvious. “The better we understand how the virus behaves and the areas that are prone to change during replication, the easier it is to design and produce a vaccine that not only protects against specific current strains, but also the myriad of emerging ones.” Her dream is to be able to do such life-changing research, without financial constraints.
Meaningful life skills
Ramulongo lists completing her PhD as her greatest achievement thus far. She is quick to add that the process also presented her with an unexpected obstacle and invitation to stretch her perseverance muscles.
“I did not expect the process to be so frustrating,” she admits. She completed the experimental part of the work in four years, but writing the thesis and publishing took another two years. “I was completely dependent on someone for input and had to learn to endure the process.”
As a female researcher, she has learnt – and offers this advice to others – that “the people around you are watching. Staying focused is important, and obviously, always giving your best.” She also believes in being kind, eager to learn, and knowing how to make your voice heard. Working together is essential, “You can never go far on your own, you need others to lift you up.”
Ramulongo deals with bias philosophically, “We are inclined to prefer some individuals over others. Sometimes it has nothing to do with what they can bring to the table. It is hard to be overlooked, but when that happens you must not let other people’s shortcomings hold you back.”
Current position: CSIR senior researcher
Career type: Microbiologist
Current research: Mutation rate of SARS-CoV-2 in infected individuals
Education: PhD (Microbiology), University of Pretoria, 2020