Biomed students to benefit from nGap lecturer’s UK experience

Last week, we promised to give you a longer version of a story about the collaboration between MUT and the University of Birmingham. The following is the response from Roxanne Thungaveloo, an nGap lecturer in the Department of Biomedical Sciences 

Roxanne, second from right, with University of Birmingham staff
Roxanne, second from right, with University of Birmingham staff

MarComms: How long were you at the University of Birmingham?

RT: I’ve spent one year at University of Birmingham (UoB) – 01 Feb 2018 to 31 Jan 2019

MarComms: What exactly are you doing there?  

RT: I was a visiting research student at the Institute of Microbiology and Infection, where I completed my Master’s research under the supervision of Dr Matthew O’Shea, Professor William Horsnell and Professor Ian Henderson.

I am a student in a collaborative project between MUT, UCT and the University of Birmingham. The main study is funded by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and is titled: A study on the effects of helminths on Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Mycobacterium tuberculosis diseases, immune responses and treatment outcomes: Human and murine models. The principal investigators and collaborators are Dr Zilungile Kwitshana, the Head of the MUT’s Department of Biomedical Sciences, Professor W.G. Horsnell (UCT) and Dr M. O’Shea (UoB). This project is an example of collaborative research between the UK and South Africa, as an effort to improve the research capacity of South African institutions. It also aims to address the interactions between our priority diseases HIV, TB and helminth infections, in order to improve understanding of these diseases interactions and improve treatment strategies.

My project focuses on direct helminth-bacterial interactions and the effects thereof on bacteria that form part of the microbiota and/or have pathogenic potential. The work I’ve completed will form the basis of my PhD project.

MarComms: Tell us about your experience there

RT: I’ve had the opportunity to work with researchers from different countries such as UK, Greece, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, India, Ireland, and Australia. This has improved my skills set as I’ve had the opportunity to engage with people from across the world, share ideas and learn about their approaches to life and work.

University of Birmingham encourages independent and critical thinking and learning. As a postgraduate researcher, I had to learn to ask meaningful questions about the research I was undertaking and find ways to address my research problems. This new skill in particular will help me as a lecturer, as I guide and teach my own students to develop as independent and critical thinkers. I have grown in a personal and professional capacity.

The experience was both challenging and rewarding. Leaving the comfort of my home country and family and living alone in a new country was challenging. I had to learn many new skills in order to adapt to the new environment. However, this was rewarding as I’ve had the opportunity to live and study in a first world country and have enjoyed many benefits for. Examples of these include, the city has very effective public transport and health services and therefore commuting and accessing healthcare was easy and stress free.

MarComms: What are your colleagues there saying about your contribution to the department/faculty?

RT: My supervisor was very happy with the quality of lab work I completed. We have produced some interesting and potentially significant data which we are looking forward to pursuing in our ongoing collaboration.

MarComms: How is it different from MUT, looking at the quality of labs and students?  

RT: Research forms an integral part of the institution’s history and the university is involved in ongoing pioneering research in various disciplines e.g. antimicrobial resistance and autoimmune diseases. As such they form collaborative projects with universities both nationally and internationally. This provides an excellent platform for researchers from all backgrounds to collaborate. It is also an excellent platform to form collaborations between first world countries and developing countries, such as South Africa, and allows researchers the opportunity to develop their research skills and use equipment and technology they do not have access to in their home countries. This is particularly important as it improves the skills of scientists working in developing countries which in turn will help improve the research capacity of these countries.

The University of Birmingham has a very diverse population of students. It is home to over 5000 international students alone. With such a diverse mix of people, one had the opportunity to learn about many different cultures.

The university functions as a self-sufficient community and provides students with a range of resources such as restaurants, bars, shops, banks and salons. Students are fortunate to have access to these facilities on campus. Residential areas and residences are often within walking distance. These resources add greatly to the university experience of a student.

The university also has a range of teaching laboratories and 24-hour learning centres and students benefit from having access to state-of-the-art technology and equipment.

MarComms: What have been your highlights of your stay in the UK?  

RT: Some of the highlights included seeing snow for the first time and surviving temperatures sometimes of -12 °C. I’ve really missed our warm Durban.

I’ve had the opportunity to travel around Europe and visited Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the museums, art galleries and heritage sites in all of these countries.

Dr Z.L. Kwitshana was very instrumental in making this project a success. As the HoD she encourages the development of her staff. As a woman in science, she pursues meaningful research and works hard to provide young women with opportunities to develop in the field. I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to her. I’d also like to acknowledge Professor Karabo Shale, Dr P.R Gumede (my NGAP Manager) and Professor Alfred Msomi, Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, for their efforts in making this project possible. And I’d like to acknowledge MUT and SAMRC for the funding that was provided.

It was a very different experience from living in sunny South Africa. The climate is different with very cold winters, mild summers and a lot of rain. Birmingham is a populous city – and with its large immigrant population, it is very culturally diverse. It was interesting to engage with people from so many different countries; to taste different foods, here so many different languages and learn about different cultures.