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Prof Donita Africander advances women’s health through groundbreaking research
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing/Korporatiewe Kommunikasie en Bemarking
Published: 08/07/2024

​Prof Donita Africander from the Department of Biochemistry in the Faculty of Science at Stellenbosch University delivered her inaugural lecture recently. The title of her lecture was “Improving women's health: insights into contraceptives and menopausal hormone therapy".

Africander spoke to the Corporate Communication and Marketing Division about how she uses her research to help improve the health, well-being and quality of life for women globally.

Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this specific field.

My research focuses on understanding the biological effects of progestins, which are synthetic compounds designed to mimic the actions of the natural sex steroid hormone progesterone. Progestins are widely used in contraception, menopausal hormone therapy, and the treatment of gynaecological disorders such as endometriosis (when tissue similar to the lining inside the uterus (endometrium) grows outside the uterus). Despite their therapeutic benefits, the clinical use of some progestins has been associated with various side-effects, such as increased incidence of invasive breast cancer and increased susceptibility to HIV. Given the diversity in chemical structure and biological function among the many therapeutically available progestins, it is likely that their beneficial effects and side-effects may vary. By delving into progestin mechanisms at the cellular level, I aim to identify the most clinically effective progestins with the least adverse effects, and to debunk the notion that all progestins are the same. This pursuit drives my research, as I strive to contribute to meaningful advancements in women's health through a comprehensive understanding of progestin biology.

How would you describe the relevance of your work, especially as it relates to women's health?

Insights into progestin mechanisms and how they are linked to diseases such as breast cancer and HIV is particularly significant for women's health, given the widespread use of progestins in contraception and menopausal hormone therapy. Advancing our knowledge in this field may lead to the development of safer, more effective formulations that have minimal adverse effects and optimal benefits. Our research has the potential to influence clinical practices, ultimately improving the well-being and quality of life for women globally.

Based on your research, why is it so important to improve our understanding of contraceptives and menopausal hormone therapy?

The terms contraceptives and menopausal hormone therapy on their own lacks specificity as they do not distinguish between different types or specific components. The distinction is crucial as not all formulations have been evaluated for side-effects such as an increased incidence of breast cancer and susceptibility to HIV. Improving our understanding of the components in contraceptives and menopausal hormone therapy, particularly the progestin component, is critical for enabling women and clinicians to make informed choices. Given the widespread use of contraceptives and hormone therapy, advancements in this area can have significant public health implications, potentially reducing disease burden and improving the quality of life for countless women.

You have spent many years in the challenging environment of higher education. What keeps you motivated when things get tough?

Without a doubt, mentoring future scientists, whether they are undergraduate or postgraduate students, or early career academics, keeps me motivated. As a passionate advocate for transformation, my commitment to being a role model for other women in science and black scientists provides me with a sense of duty that helps me navigate challenging times. Additionally, the knowledge that our research has the potential to positively impact women's health globally serves as powerful motivation to overcome obstacles.

What aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?

I find the most joy in working with my research team, especially mentoring students and junior researchers. It is personally fulfilling to nurture the next generation of scientists. I cherish the exchange of ideas and the collective effort of my research team and our collaborators as we strive to find the missing pieces to complete the puzzle of progestins in women's health. Knowing that the work has the potential to improve health outcomes for women worldwide is incredibly rewarding.

What would your message be to young girls who aspire to a career in science?

Science benefits from diverse perspectives and voices, and your ideas and contributions matter. Believe in your abilities and potential; with hard work, you can achieve anything you set your mind to. You belong in the world of science, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise!

Tell us something exciting about yourself that people would not expect.

Outside of the lab, I indulge in being a bit of a food and wine snob – exploring flavours, trying new cuisines, and pairing them with the perfect wines. I also have a deep love for singing and dancing, often belting out tunes in the shower or hitting the dance floor with family and friends.

How do you spend your free time?

In my free time, I cherish moments with my husband and two daughters, particularly exploring new recipes together. I have a passion for cooking, especially experimenting with Indian and Asian cuisine. When I'm not in the kitchen, you might find me binge-watching crime or law series. I often immerse myself so deeply in the intricate and suspenseful plots that the researcher in me transforms into a detective or lawyer – much to the dismay of my family!

  • Photo by Ignus Dreyer (The Stellenbosch Centre for Photographic Services).