Stellenbosch University: FMHS researchers bolstered by SAMRC awards

Three researchers at Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) have received substantial awards from the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), enabling two of them to fast-track the research needed to complete their PhDs, and for the third to expand her research and become a primary supervisor for two PhDs in her field.

Ms Sarah Pheeha and Dr Jane Shaw both received the Bongani Mayosi National Health Scholars Programme Award, which will enable them to focus on the research they need to do for their doctorates. Dr Jacqueline Womersley received an SAMRC Early Career Research Award, which allows her to focus on her ongoing research project in the field of biological psychiatry.

Ms Sara Pheeha

Pheeha has a BSc and an MSc in Medical Sciences (Chemical Pathology) and is registered for a PhD at the FHMS. She currently also serves as a Medical Scientist at the National Health Laboratory Health Services at the Dr George Mukhari Academic Hospital in Ga-Rankuwa (north-west of Pretoria), where she runs the HPCSA-accredited intern training programme. She is teaching, providing services to the public, and also conducting research for her PhD in Epidemiology.

Her doctoral research is on the topic of gut microbiota profiles in people with type 2 diabetes and healthy individuals without diabetes. This research is designed to better understand the role that the gut microbiota plays in type 2 diabetes, and how it relates to the immune system, particularly, antibody-mediated immunity.

Her research is particularly relevant in South Africa, where it is estimated that approximately 4.5 million people have diabetes, many of whom are undiagnosed.

The award she received from the Bongani Mayosi National Health Scholarship Programme is valid from 1 April 2022 to 31 March 2023.

“I am very pleased to have received such an award, because it will definitely help me to fast-track my PhD, and therefore help me to achieve my biggest career goal thus far,” says Pheeha.

Dr Jane Shaw

Shaw is a Specialist Physician and Pulmonologist with an interest in tuberculosis (TB) and other infectious diseases of the lung and pleura.

In 2008 she completed her MBChB with the University of Cape Town (UCT) and spent her two years of internship and one year of community service at the Paarl Provincial Hospital, just outside Cape Town.

She completed her specialist training in pulmonology with SU in 2018, and then worked as an Internal Medicine consultant and Pulmonology consultant in the Department of Medicine at the FMHS and Tygerberg Academic Hospital.

In 2020 she transitioned to the role of study clinician in the FMHS’ Immunology Research Group, where she takes part in research into the host immune response to TB as well as TB treatment trials. She also has an active interest in diseases of the pleura, other granulomatous diseases of the respiratory system, and thoracic ultrasound.

As an early-career researcher, she has published over 30 articles in peer-reviewed journals, and has authored four book chapters.

She is currently doing a PhD in Molecular Biology at SU and sees patients in both the private and public sector.

From April 2020 to April 2022 she was a Study Clinician and Pulmonologist in the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics at the FMHS, where she performed procedures, oversaw the BMRI Research Bronchoscopy Theatre, supervised theatre staff, trained staff and students, and participated in various research studies.

Receiving the Bongani Mayosi National Health Scholars Programme has enabled her to focus 90 percent of her time on her PhD.

Her PhD research aims to explore the impact of recent SARS-CoV-2 infection on the host immune response to Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which she hopes will contribute to the better understanding of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the pre-existing TB pandemic.

“This award will allow me to focus on achieving the research aims of my PhD project, without having to also relinquish my ability to support my family,” says Shaw.

Dr Jacqueline Womersley

Womersley is a senior research scientist in the Department of Psychiatry at SU and a member of the Medical Research Council/SU Genomics of Brain Disorders Extra-Mural Unit. She was awarded an SAMRC Early Career Research Award.

She has an extensive background in basic neuroscience research. She obtained her PhD in physiology from UCT and then completed postdoctoral fellowships in cellular and molecular pharmacology with the Medical University of South Carolina (USA) and psychiatric genetics at SU.

She has a Y1-rating from the South African National Research Foundation. Her research to date has focused on the biological mechanisms underlying the risk of developing psychiatric disorders, with a particular focus on the influence of gene-environment interactions on behaviour and mental health.

She is a member of the neuropsychiatric genetics research group and works with staff and postgraduate students on projects spanning childhood trauma, HIV, post-traumatic stress disorder, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, anxiety, depression, and substance use.

The SAMRC Early Investigators Programme was awarded for the project, “Epigenetic and biological aging profiles of neuropsychological function in South African women with HIV”.

“This award will allow me to leverage the results of an ongoing study, conducted in the Department of Psychiatry, on biological endophenotypes of HIV in South African women. The rich multi-level dataset will include neuropsychological, clinical, genomic and neuroimaging measures to provide detailed mechanistic insight into cognitive decline and depression, two common comorbidities of HIV infection,” explains Womersley.

She sees this funding as an important step in establishing herself as an independent researcher in the field of biological psychiatry. The funding will allow her to be primary supervisor for two PhD projects and will also enable her to expand on a planned research project in collaboration with Dr Scott Letendre, a University of California San Diego Centre for AIDS Research infectious disease expert, who examines the impact of HIV on brain health.

“I have had a passion for neuroscience ever since I was introduced to it as an undergraduate and am exceptionally grateful that this award will allow me continue research in this fascinating field, and also to share this opportunity and my skills with postgraduate students who will work on the project,” she concludes.