"Men love to wonder, and that is the seed of science." This quote, from 19th century American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, has motivated Soyama Sivatho Nyangwa to be the young scientist he is today, with a passion for using his knowledge to help solve the world's problems – especially as they relate to infectious diseases.

 

Nyangwa is a Doctoral Candidate in Molecular Biology at Stellenbosch University, and a recipient of a fellowship from the National Research Foundation (NRF), an entity of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI).

 

Born the youngest child of a large family and raised in a small town called Keiskammahoek in the Eastern Cape, Nyangwa has wanted to be a doctor or a scientist for as long as he can remember.

 

Inspired by his mother's passion for nursing

"Not to sound clichéd or anything, but growing up was really not so easy, coming from a previously disadvantaged background," he says. "My parents worked hard to make sure they provided us with the best opportunities to pursue our dreams."

 

He traces his inspiration to pursue his childhood dream to his mother, a professional nurse. "Her work and her passion for nursing introduced me to the field of medicine, and I fell in love with it," he said.

 

His ambition was fuelled further by his training as an igqirha (traditional healer), which both shaped him and added to his interest in science.

 

Nyangwa has travelled a long road to where he is now, starting with a Diploma in Biotechnology at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, where he also completed a BTech in Biomedical Technology. He then enrolled at Stellenbosch University for an MSc in Molecular Biology, which he subsequently upgraded to a PhD.

 

Understanding our susceptibility to disease

 

Nyangwa is driven by a desire to add to the current body of knowledge on tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, and speaks with passion about his PhD research project. His focus is on the structural and functional variations that occur in a type of cytokine known as interferon gamma.

 

Cytokines, he explains, are small proteins that play an important role in cell signalling in the human body. And among the cytokines, interferon gamma (IFN-g) is of particular interest to Nyangwa, because it is critical for innate and adaptive immunity against viral and other infections.

 

While his project will initially look at how the structure of interferon gamma correlates with its function, Nyangwa's ultimate goal is to define the IFN-g structural profiles in the blood plasma of patients with TB. Doing this, he believes, will help us understand the impact of structural IFN-g variants on the immune response and possibly on our susceptibility to disease.

 

At the very least, he hopes his research study will serve as a platform for further research, as no similar study has been conducted in this area.

 

Nyangwa still sees a long road ahead for himself as he works to leave a mark in his chosen field. "I would also like to start a medical research institute in my home province of Eastern Cape, for its children and the children of Mother Africa."

 

He urges young people to "work hard, play hard, ground yourself in something you love doing, and pray hard if you are religious".

 

Lastly, describing science as "a passion and a hobby that you sometimes get paid for", he offers the following advice to young people who are considering a career in science: "If you still see being in science as a job, then you aren't where you are destined to be yet."