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PhD-student in ethnobotany shines on international stage
Author: Media & Communication, Faculty of Science
Published: 20/09/2021

Kaylan Reddy (24), a PhD-student in the Department of Botany and Zoology​ at Stellenbosch University, has just received two awards at international conferences: one for the best poster in ethnobotany at Botany 2021 virtual conference, hosted by the Botanical Society of America, and the other for the best PhD presentation at the International Symposium of Phytochemicals in Medicine and Food, hosted by the Phytochemical Society of Europe and the Phytochemical Society of Asia.

Reddy, a first-generation student, first completed a BSc-degree in Biochemistry and Chemistry at the University of Pretoria (UP). An interest in how one could manipulate the chemistry of life within humans led him to a BScHons in Medicinal Plant Science at UP under the guidance of Dr Gary Stafford. Dr Stafford then introduced him to Prof Nox Makunga at Stellenbosch University's research into ethnobotany and plant medicine. In 2020 his MSc project, with Prof Makunga as study leader, was upgraded to a PhD.

For his studies, Reddy is looking into the chemical and genetic differences between eight different species of the medicinal plant Sceletium exclusively found in the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape. Sceletium, also known as 'kanna' and 'kougoed', has been used by indigenous peoples for centuries for relaxation, stress reduction, and calming thirst and hunger signals. Reddy hopes to characterise the chemical components found in the Sceletium genus that are effective for relieving the symptoms of anxiety and depression. The next step is then to determine the most effective combination of these chemicals in order to develop substances that can be used in the treatment of anxiety and depression.

The search for this elusive species have awakened a newfound love for plants in him: “These plants are quite rare in nature and difficult to find, as they literally hide underneath other plants. Some of the species I am studying have not been seen since the 1980s. Most of the time we have to talk to people living in those areas to find the plants. Last week, an 80-year old gentleman helped us to find a population of Sceletium growing in an area he last visited when he was 16 years old," he explains.

Reddy is also passionate about science communication, and frequently shares his work on his Instagram account at @sceletium.sci.guy and on Twitter @Plant_Detective. He is also representing SU at the national semi-finals of FameLab 2021 where he will talk about medicinal plant science and mental health.

On the photo, Kaylan Reddy. Photographer: Stefan Els