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Search for new drugs motivates Malawian biochemist’s doctoral studies
Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson
Published: 11/12/2019

An interest in the discovery of new drugs to combat the scourge of infectious diseases in Malawi, has inspired Dr Collins Edward Jana since 2008 to persist in his efforts to finally obtain a PhD in Biochemistry from Stellenbosch University (SU).

He is one of 27 PhD-graduates in the Faculty of Science to receive their degrees at the 11 December 2019 graduation ceremony.

Dr Jana, currently a researcher and lecturer at the University of Malawi's College of Medicine, plans to establish a research group in drug-discovery with the support of his study leader and mentor of the past ten years, Prof Erick Strauss from SU's Department of Biochemistry.

Dr Jana's research focused on a new class of antimicrobial compounds, called PanSulfAms, which are based on a well-established strategy of using analogues of vitamins as antibiotics. This strategy originally led to the discovery of the first synthetic antibiotics, some of which are still used clinically today.

According to Prof Strauss, there is an urgent need for the development of new antimicrobials: “In Dr Jana's investigation he determined the biological mechanism of action of the PanSulfAms, and established the basis for their selectivity against the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, a growing threat in hospital-acquired infections."

He believes a lot more should be done to establish a critical mass of researchers in Africa, but it takes time, funding and often major sacrifices on the part of the students, who has to leave family behind to pursue postgraduate opportunities in other countries.

Dr Jana's academic journey began in 2000 when he graduated with a BSc-degree in chemistry and botany at the Islamic University in Uganda. In 2003 he was appointed as an associate lecturer in biochemistry at the University of Malawi's College of Medicine. On advice from his then Head of Department, Prof Edward Senga, he decided to continue in this field, despite the fact that no institution in Malawi had the capacity or expertise to offer a higher degree in that field.

Five years later, his big break came when he obtained a scholarship from the Norwegian Government to pursue postgraduate opportunities in biochemistry at any institution in Norway, Malawi or Africa.

It was while searching online for a suitable institution that he stumbled upon SU's Department of Biochemistry: “I was impressed by the department's high-quality research output and the university's international ranking. And given the fact that Malawi is one of the countries that is hardest hit by infectious diseases, I also wanted to join a research group with a focus on discovering new drugs," he explains.

That was the start of a ten-year long journey, leaving behind a wife and young child for long periods of time, and often struggling to complete his research within the time specified by various funders. But it was also the opportunity of a lifetime to work with “amazing and memorable researchers", and making new friends in Stellenbosch.

He completed his BScHons-degree in 2008 and an MSc-degree in biochemistry in 2011, under the guidance of Prof Strauss. But it took another four years before he could return for his PhD: “I had to return to Malawi in 2012 since the conditions of the scholarship required that I should serve my College for two to three years before proceeding with a PhD. However, I ended up staying in Malawi for four years because of understaffing in my department at the time."

When the situation improved, he was released to enrol for his PhD in July 2015. Without adequate funding, however, he had to rely on additional funding from Prof Strauss' research group to finance his travels and upkeep. In 2016 he finally succeeded in obtaining a three-year scholarship from the Malawian Government.

Yet again, the funding ended before the lab work was finalised, and he still had to write-up and complete his thesis: “It was hard! There were times I thought I would never be able to graduate. But once again, my thanks go out to Prof Strauss who remained supportive during these times."

As a researcher and full-time lecturer at the College of Medicine, Dr Jana says he is trying to devote at least 30% of his time to research, in between lecturing and the supervision of research projects: “I want to establish my own research group at the College, whilst collaborating with SU and other institutions. My ultimate goal is to become a professor in biochemistry," he concludes.

To students in a similar situation, his advice is: “One should know that the journey towards achieving your goals is not always straightforward. Focus, determination, hard work, perseverance and communication are essential. Challenges are part of life, and not necessarily a limitation. Stay positive!"

On the photo, Prof Erick Strauss with Dr Collins Jana after the December 2019 graduation ceremony at SU. Photo: Wiida Basson

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Prof Erick Straus

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Dr Collins Jana

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