A world-class researcher in the making

Tandeka Magcwebeba

“There will be a time when you might doubt your own abilities; do not become discouraged/feel dejected, just push on, you will reap the rewards.”

I completed my undergrad but was left feeling frustrated because I had no clue as to how I was going to use my degree, so I did the next best thing, I enrolled in an honours course

“Our studies have shown that topical application of rooibos after sun exposure, may be able to protect against cancer development in skin by removing damaged and inflamed cells through a process called apoptosis -– also commonly known as programmed cell death or cell suicide” said Dr Tandeka Magcwebeba, a postdoctoral fellow at Stellenbosch University.

This was one of the findings during a PhD internship at the PROMEC Unit in the Medical Research Centre (MRC) in Parow. The PhD Project at the MRC was a follow up investigation to a previous study, also conducted at the PROMEC unit, which showed that rooibos can be able to prevent cancer development by reducing the size and number of tumours on mouse skin (animal cancer model) when it is topically applied. For Tandeka, her association with the MRC was the perfect symbiotic relationship. The project she was involved in, required someone with a strong immunological background and in the process she had the opportunity to obtain her PhD in a new field (Biochemistry) whilst gaining valuable industrial experience as an intern.

“The project was an eye opener, I never knew rooibos could be used for medical purposes, I thought it was only used for oral consumption as a beverage.”

Looking back, Tandeka never thought that she would ever enrol for a PhD, let alone obtain her doctorate. She puts her achievement down to the encouragement of her family and friends.

“I was so overwhelmed with the work required to do a PhD that I thought I would never be able to do it. My parents and friends encouraged me to consider doing a PhD. It was their faith in me that opened my eyes to the possibility and which got me motivated to enrol.”

Tandeka grew up in Queenstown, the youngest of two siblings. Her father worked for the Department of Education and her mom was a teacher at Mpendulo Primary School. In Grade 5, she changed schools and attended St Theresa’s Primary which was, back then, predominantly coloured. “Up until then, I had always been top of my grade. My teachers always heaped praise on me.” But everything changed, the medium of communication, which was mainly in English, was different to what i was used to, so this became a bit of a challenge for me and it reflected in my performance.

The language barrier was a constant challenge with Tandeka right up until high school, although it improved over time, but she was always conscious of the fact that English was not her first language. However, Tandeka was determined to make a success of her life and with hard work, dedication and constant motivation from her parents she managed to overcome the barrier and prove her marks. When growing up, Tandeka was always fascinated with medicine. After matriculating she applied to the University of Cape Town (UCT) but was not accepted because her marks were not adequate. Her second choice was a BSc with majors in Physiology and Medical Microbiology and she was accepted at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

“I completed my undergrad but was left feeling frustrated because I had no clue as to how I was going to use my degree, so I did the next best thing, I enrolled in an Honours course.”

Tandeka completed her Honours course in Medical Microbiology. Still unsure of what she was going to do she decided to do her Masters in immunology. This is when she had a eureka moment where everything fell into place.

“I fell in love with immunology and I realised I wanted to be involved in research. Growing up you are only exposed to certain professions so you become fixated on something. For me that was becoming a medical doctor. Later on you are exposed to other things and then you realise you can still be in a certain field without doing exactly what you first envisaged.”

In her postdoctoral studies, Tandeka is currently working on a project that is investigating how natural plant compounds can be used to prevent inflammation and cancer. For this purpose, her project is focusing on the anti-inflammatory and chemopreventive properties of a Namibian plant called Gannabos (Salsola tuberculata). Gannabos has traditionally been used in Bushman folklore medicine as an oral contraceptive and it is also known to cause a syndrome called “Grootlamsiekte/Big Lamb disease which is characterised by prolonged pregnancy in Karakul sheep. The contraceptive properties of Gannabos have been validated in various scientific models, however, not a lot is known about the anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer preventing properties of the plant, which is where her project comes in.“I developed this love for immunology with a focus on inflammation during my Masters course when I was researching how polluted river water affects people’s immune systems. To still be involved and intrigued by this field of study after all these years is great.”

“One of my research career highlights as a postdoctoral fellow was when I had to go and present the work I did on Gannabos at an international conference in Australia and during this time I had an opportunity to meet a Nobel Laureate, in Physiology or Medicine (1996), Prof P. Doherty” I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would get an opportunity to have a conversation with a world-class immunologist. So from that moment onwards I can truly say “Allow yourself to dream, work hard … you never know, the reality might exceed your expectations”.

Tandeka is finishing her postdoctoral studies in 2018 and hopes to direct her attention towards other chronic illnesses that are underlied by inflammatory disorders such as diabetes, strokes, TB and HIV. She hopes that her background which incorporates immunology and biochemistry, will stand her in good stead in the fight against these diseases.

In the meantime, Tandeka has a message that she likes to share with younger students: “There will be a time when you might doubt your own abilities; do not become discouraged/feel dejected, just push on, you will reap the rewards!”

“Also, it does not matter what the circumstances are, always do your best, someone is bound to notice.”