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Change the world

18/10/2022

Diabetes is the second leading cause of death due to disease in SA, after tuberculosis. Finding ways to treat diabetes using indigenous knowledge about natural remedies has won Dr NehemiahLatolla of Nelson Mandela University a place on the world stage of science communicators.

Dr Latolla was chosen as FameLab SA 2022 winner during the national leg of the International FameLab science communication competition held on Monday evening, 17 October 2022. (See our September #R2bP story). As the national winner, he will represent South Africa in the International FameLab 2022 competition in November 2022.

During the FameLab South Africa Final, ten young scientists showcased research from some of the top academic and research institutes across the country in a way that non-experts can follow along and enjoy. The ten finalists each presented a three-minute talk about their research using props and simple language. The talks shared a glimpse into the lives of young researchers in South Africa and the impact that they hope to have through their studies and work. FameLab is the biggest international competition that seeks and supports science communication talent. This year marked the celebration of the 10th season of FameLab in South Africa.

Dr Latolla, a postgraduate researcher at Mandela University, charmed the judges with captivating storytelling skills and his passion for tapping into the wealth of SA’s indigenous knowledge about natural remedies to treat diabetes. His research in phytochemistry focuses on evaluating the safety and efficacy of natural products to treat diabetes. “SA has about 30 000 recorded plant species of which approximately 3 000 have the potential for medicinal use. However, there is a lack in the reported chemistry, safety, and efficacy of these medicinal plants,” according to Nehemiah.

First runner-up, Johanné Marais from the University of the Witwatersrand, seeks to address sleep deprivation due to HIV treatment with her sleep neurophysiology research. Second runner-up, Onesimo Mtintsilana, also from the University of the Witwatersrand, is a particle physicist and the student representative for the Women in Physics in SA Forum. Mtintsilana is also a tour guide at CERN (European Council for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland where she introduces people to this multinational particle physics research institute’s mission and achievements.

Finalist Tanya van Aswegen from Stellenbosch University talked about the influence of caregiver relationships on early childhood development; Nolwandle Khumalo from North-West University explained the important role that pollinators play in environmental health, while finalist Sohair Geyer-Benjamin of the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine at the University of Cape Town shared cutting edge research in the fight against TB.

In reaction to his win, Nehemiah said: “We truly had a team of great ideas and science communicators in the competition this year. I feel very honoured to be able to move forward and represent this group.” He expressed his gratitude to the organisers and his enthusiasm about competing alongside other country winners in the international competition. “I will give my best to showcase the richness of thought and innovation South African scientists have to offer,” said Nehemiah.

“I also strongly feel that as tax-funded researchers, we owe it to the tax-payer to communicate our science in an unambiguous way, as COVID-19 showed us how important it is for scientists (not politicians) to come forth and address the public on the sciences involved in any particular case,” said Nehemiah when asked about the importance of science communication. “I see FameLab as paramount in helping develop myself to effectively communicate with the communities I work with.” Read an interview with Nehmiah lower down on this page.

The judges for the final event, all experienced role-players in the South African science communication landscape, had no easy task in selecting the top contestant from the group of finalists this year. The FameLab competition offered all contestants the opportunity to hone their communication and presentation skills to engage the public with their research starting with training and participating during heats held at various institutions earlier this year. All contestants were encouraged to continue their new roles as ambassadors of their research and to find opportunities to talk about their research outside their academic spaces.

FameLab, an initiative of Cheltenham Festivals in the UK, has been running in South Africa since 2013 through a partnership between the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (NRF-SAASTA) and research communication specialists, Jive Media Africa.

The International FameLab Final in which Nehemiah will be participating will be streamed live  on YouTube on 25 November 2022 at 11h00 (SAST): https://www.youtube.com/c/CheltenhamFestivalsYT

To find out more about FameLab in South Africa, go to: https://www.saasta.ac.za/competitions/famelab/

Contact:         

Lithakazi Masilela, NRF-SAASTA, at L.Masilela@saasta.nrf.ac.za

Shabnaaz Gani, Jive Media Africa at shabnaaz@jivemedia.co.za

About Jive Media Africa:

Jive Media Africa supports top researchers with innovative, cutting edge communications. They are winners of the National Science and Technology Forum Award for Science Communication and have brought the FameLab competition to South Africa in 2013. Jive Media Africa has been getting creative to connect researchers, engineers and scientists with the public. Through communication strategy, media production, training and mentorship their aim is to activate African knowledge and grow capacity for great research and innovation on the African continent. Find out more about Jive Media Africa here: https://jivemedia.co.za/

About the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA):

SAASTA is a business unit of the National Research Foundation (NRF) with the mandate to advance public awareness, appreciation and engagement of science, engineering and technology in South Africa. SAASTA’s contribution to the NRF’s vision is to grow the pool of quality learners today who will become the scientists and innovators of tomorrow. It aims to be the leading science advancement agency in the country by promoting and communicating the value and impact of science, technology and innovation in a dynamic knowledge economy. It also intends to contribute significantly towards building a science, engineering and technology (SET) human resource base. For more information on the operations and programs within the NRF please visit www.saasta.ac.za

About the National Research Foundation (NRF): 

The National Research Foundation (NRF) was established on 1 April 1999 as an independent statutory body in accordance with the National Research Foundation Act. The NRF is a key public entity responsible for supporting the development of human resources for research and innovation in all fields of science and technology. The organisation is one of the major players in educating and training a new generation of scientists able to deal with South African and African needs. The organisation encourages public awareness and appreciation of science, engineering and technology, and facilitates dialogue between science and society. Its vision is to contribute to a prosperous South Africa based on a knowledge economy. For more information on the operations and programs within the NRF please visit www.nrf.ac.za

Interview with Dr Nehemiah Latolla, FameLab SA 2022 winner

 
Jive Media Africa: Please tell us a little about yourself.
 
Dr. Nehemiah Latolla: I was born in Leratong Hospital in Johannesburg before my parents started missionary work in the Eastern Cape Province. Growing up in a home of missionaries, my parents always reminded us of the importance of caring for and helping others. This would become my goal in life, to use education to better the lives of others around me.
I was attracted to Organic Chemistry in high school as the biological route (as a medical practitioner) did not agree with my squeamishness around blood. It offered the world of medicine through chemistry which I would, later on, make a home. I am a firm believer in the African proverb, "Those that are in the room, are meant to be there" and this I connected to my journey - where you are meant to be, life will lead you. 
In my first Organic Chemistry lecture I met my supervisor, who would later introduce me to the world of medicinal chemistry through the indigenously use of plants. This field of research resonated with me on both an academic and personal level, offering the opportunity to help others through familiar stories shared by my grandparents. But this change-making project does not stop at a purely scientific level, I also use the scientific method to create fashion and poetry to change the lives of others, using critical narratives to explore questions about the body, sexuality, and the curriculum. This I've been able to do as a former chair of the university poetry society (where I ran "Poetry as healing" workshops with community members), at various exhibitions, publications and events, and as a former assistant exhibition manager at the Archives and Exhibition Centre at the Nelson Mandela University. I think of all this work that describes who I am as the culmination of the different streams at my disposal to care for and help others. All this to, in the words of my institution's namesake, "Change the world".
 
JMA: How did you find out about FameLab and why did you get involved?
 
NL: I became involved in FameLab for various reasons. Former FameLab alums from my institution (Dr Pulleng  Moleko-Boyce and Mr Sendibitiyosi Gandidzanwa) have shared the amazing opportunities FameLab offers and upon completing my thesis I saw the need to revisit how I communicate my science. I also strongly feel that as tax-funded researchers we owe it to the tax-payer to communicate our science in an unambiguous way. COVID-19 showed us how important it is for scientists (not politicians) to come forth and address the public on the sciences involved in any particular case. Most importantly my research is concerned with the chemistry of medicinal plant use and I see FameLab as paramount in helping develop myself to effectively communicate with the communities I work with. Finally, to make connections with other science communicators and build community.
 
JMA: Why is it important for you to engage with people outside of your research area?
 
NL: It's important to engage people outside of my research area as this provides new and diverse insights into the research. Sometimes we are too stuck in our own silos to see certain things that are easily discernable by fresh eyes.
 
JMA: Tell us about your research and what value it has in the world? What made you choose this specific research area?
 
NL: My research area is in phytochemistry, which is the study of the chemistry of plants. In my case, those plants used locally in the treatment of diabetes. This chemistry is compounds or substances produced by living organisms found in nature and is termed Natural Products (NP). In the 90s approximately 80% of drugs were NP or derived from NP. Thus, we are interested in the study of these medicinal plants towards new, safe, and cost-effective drugs. Similarly to other scientific research, the study of NP is not unique to South Africa but forms part of global endeavours towards drug discovery. What makes this undertaking so special here is our regional and indigenous knowledge systems advantages which are unique to SA. We have about 30 000 recorded plant species of which approximately 3 000 have the potential for medicinal use. However, there is a lack in the reported chemistry, safety, and efficacy of these medicinal plants. I am motivated to make a contribution to this research towards drug discovery to combat the significant healthcare crisis which is diabetes. This research responds to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 'Good health and well-being' and can further contribute towards 'No poverty' through the potential of innovation, investment, and job creation.
 
JMA: Why do you think it is important to share your research on an international platform?
 
NL: The scientific project by its nature is a global endeavor. However, we need to share our research internationally to ensure that we are informed of new trends or discoveries to advance the research fields. It also opens up opportunities to access various infrastructures or schools of thought available that foster collaboration. Through science communication, we also have the opportunity to inform the global public about our research and what it means for them. In my research, I work with indigenously used medicinal plants which only grow in southern Africa to find solutions for diabetes which is a global challenge. This situates this research as uniquely South African and responsive to global challenges, highlighting the South African botanical gardens as sites of innovation, investment, job creation and ultimately poverty alleviation. Research worth pursuing is research worth sharing.  
 
JMA: What advice can you offer to young researchers?
 
NL: As you work towards your qualification or complete your research project three things become important: passion, perseverance, and care. Make sure that you are passionate about whatever research topic you seek to investigate, as this will make it real and tangible. Develop the ability to persevere, so that regardless of the challenges or setbacks you are able to continue to push towards your goal. Finally, have care, for the project, the people you work with and yourself, which resonates with the age-old saying, "If you love it, it will grow". Remember research is not an activity, it becomes a life of its own and thus you need to make sure that the people around you (involved in the project or in your life) understand and support you on your journey. Failure is inevitable and necessary when you conduct research because it provides an opportunity to stop, reevaluate, learn and grow as a researcher. My father, who was a devoted Christian and Pastor (God rest his soul) taught me the most important lesson yet in my life, "The greater the challenge, the greater the reward". This is always my mantra in research - whenever all seems lost great victory is ahead.
 
JMA: How do you feel about winning the FameLab SA competition and going on to participate in the international competition?
 
NL: I feel incredibly humbled to have reached this place in this competition. We truly had a team of great ideas and science communicators in the competition this year. I feel very honoured to be able to move forward and represent this group of excellence. However, the weight on my shoulders to move forward and represent them all is not lost on me. Thank you to the FameLab SA team, NRF SAASTA and Jive Media for their continued support throughout this process. I look forward, enthused about what the international competition holds and will give my best to showcase the richness of thought and innovation South African scientists have to offer.