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PhD graduate doesn’t let diabetes get the better of her
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking
Published: 07/12/2022

​Four to six times a day. That's how often Dr Yolandi Swart from Pretoria must inject herself with insulin because her life depends on it. Having been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (when the pancreas produces little or no insulin) when she was nine years old, Swart has been insulin-dependent ever since. But she has not let this stand in her way of reaching the pinnacle of academic success  ̶  a PhD in Human Genetics at Stellenbosch University (SU). She received her degree at SU's December graduation on Tuesday (6 December 2022).

Swart says it has not been easy living with diabetes. “The fact that I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at such an early age had an immense impact on my everyday life. I need to monitor my blood glucose levels carefully on a daily basis.

“I always thought this would be a disadvantage in my life, but it made me more sympathetic towards people living with chronic diseases and those individuals who don't have the same resources to treat diabetes.

“This also made me realise that children with type 1 diabetes in poorer communities might not get the adequate healthcare as they should be and it can be difficult to follow a healthy lifestyle in such circumstances."

At the age of 12, Swart was part of a clinical trial during which new insulin was tested on her to determine how effective it would be in the management of type 1 diabetes.

“This made a big impression on me, and I knew then that one day I would end up doing research that contributes to health and medicine."

Master's upgraded to PhD

Pursuing her dream, Swart decided to study human life sciences and genetics at SU after matric. She achieved excellent results in her undergraduate and postgraduate studies – so much so that her Master's degree was upgraded to a PhD in 2019. A Master's study must be of exceptional quality for it to be upgraded. This only happens on rare occasions in academia.

For her PhD, Swart used computational and statistical methods to analyse the genetic information of sub-Saharan African populations with complex genetic ancestry who are affected by both Tuberculosis (TB) and Type 2 diabetes. She wanted to identify genetic information associated with the co-occurrence of the diseases in these populations. This is the first South African human genetics project to incorporate both TB and diabetes.

She says her study provides a framework to understand the genetic variability in admixed populations from Africa. “It will also serve as a genetic toolbox which can be used to conduct genetic data analysis on highly admixed populations affected by other communicable and non-communicable diseases. Genetic variants could be identified and used to develop personalised medicine and treatment strategies specifically for these populations."

Overcoming challenges

Looking back on her journey and the health challenges she had to overcome, Swart says she is grateful for the support she received from her family, teachers, sport coaches, doctors, nurses and her PhD supervisor.  She adds that her academic achievements prove that you can still pursue your dreams even if you have diabetes. “There is unfortunately a lot of stigma around type 1 diabetes, in particular, and many people, without having the full knowledge of your condition, will give you unwarranted advice that can be discouraging."

Swart encourages people with diabetes to seek help when they feel overwhelmed or burnt out because managing the disease every day can be exhausting.

She exercises regularly and participates in sport, firmly believing that people with diabetes can live full and healthy lives.

“Away from the books and the laboratory, I mostly enjoy being outdoors and doing anything adventurous, including hiking, swimming and trail running. I also joined the Stellenbosch Triathlon Squad recently and started doing triathlons. I would love to complete a full Ironman one day."

With a PhD under her belt, this young iron woman plans to continue with biomedical research as a postdoctoral fellow at SU in 2023.

  • ​Photo: Dr Yolandi Swart at the graduation ceremony. Photographer: Stefan Els.