When her three month nephew was diagnosed with the dreaded meningitis in 2011, Miss Sindiswa Lukhele was naturally devastated. The experience so affected her she decided there and then that she was going to pursue medicine when she grows up. She says she did not have an idea as to what branch of medicine she would like to pursue. But she was clear about developing a deeper understanding of the emergence of pathogenic species or infections.
Pursuing microbial genomics
As luck would have it, she came to know about infectious diseases and clinical microbiology programme at WITS. She wasted no time and decided to study for Biochemistry and Microbiology undergraduate degree at the University of Venda. Upon completing her undergraduate degree Miss Lukehele enrolled for an Honours and Master’s degree in Biochemistry and Cell Biology at WITS.She did no waste time and enrolled for a PhD degree thanks to her Master’s degree supervisor’s encouragement.
Fortunately, at around the same time she came across an advertisement on the Wits’ portal about a PhD project at the Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit (VIDA), formerly known as the Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit (RMPRU). “VIDA offered me an opportunity to pursue a microbial genomics project that seeks to delineate GBS genotypes circulating among pregnant women; infants aged 0 to 89 days, and stillbirths,” says Miss Lukhele, whose PhD programme is funded by the National Research Foundation.
Current research focus
She says the focus of her current research project seeks to identify key factors that could be potential vaccine targets for sepsis and bacteraemia caused by Group B Streptococcus. During her studies Miss Lukhele received several accolades which saw her attending various conferences overseas including receiving a prestigious research grant with the NIHR-MPRU in collaboration with the University College London and the University of Oxford.
Characterisation of genetic diversity and variation
Miss Lukhele says there is a need to understand the influence of host factors and variation on the diversity of Group B Streptococcus (GBS). As a result, her study entails characterisation of genetic diversity and variation of GBS among (colonised) women, infants with invasive disease, and stillbirths, which might have an effect on vaccine efficacy, she says. She says she uses whole-genome sequencing to characterise variants that contribute to colonisation and invasive disease to identify potential markers of disease or vaccine targets, and to determine genetic variation between colonising, invasive disease, and stillbirths. “Our study uses vaginal samples from mothers and blood or cerebrospinal fluid from infants aged <90 days and stillbirths to delineate the variation and diversity of GBS.
No vaccine for GBS yet
We associate clinical data of participants with GBS genetic factors to understand clinical outcomes caused by the pathogen,” says Miss Lukhele whose interests also include microbial genomics, bioinformatics and infectious diseases. Miss Lukhele further adds that at the moment there is no vaccine for GBS-affiliated clinical manifestations and through my research, I would like to aid in vaccine development. We aim to further delineate the extent of variation in GBS.
Some of the highlights of her career include:
- being elected SADC representative for the African Bioinformatics Network (2021)
- Mail and Guardian 200 Inspirational Young South Africans (2018)
- being visiting scholar at UCL for Bioinformatics training and also
- helping organise the first virtual ABN Bioinformatics summer school.
Advice to young women scientists
Miss Lukhele wishes to see more young women enter the STEM field and she wants to be a role model to them. Her advice to them is that they should choose to be unique, adding “you can never go wrong” with this choice. “Never follow trends, start your own thing” she says. She advises young women to consider a career in bioinformatics and clinical medicine. Miss Lukhele reckons there is so much to be explored in the field and that there are fewer women pursuing bioinformatics in clinical medicine.She also encourages young researchers in Africa to join @AfriBioinfoNet network saying more opportunities will emerge from it.