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Stefan ‘excited’ by unique PhD opportunity spanning three continents
Author: FMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Ilse Bigalke
Published: 07/03/2023

​A researcher with Stellenbosch University's (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), Stefan Botha, has been awarded a rather unique full scholarship over three years for a PhD in the field of pre-eclampsia.

Botha's PhD will be a joint effort between three universities on three different continents: SU, the University of Melbourne (Australia) and the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin (Germany).  Botha, currently an assistant project manager and study coordinator for SU's Clinical Mycobacteriology and Epidemiology (CLIME) research group in the FMHS' Department of Biomedical Sciences, describes this joint research project as very exciting. “I cannot wait to get started!"

He regards himself as immensely privileged and humbled to have received a full Melbourne Research Scholarship that will cover his study fees and living allowance for the duration of his studies abroad.

“I will be studying towards a joint PhD, under the Berlin University Alliance, through the University of Melbourne and Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. The University of Melbourne will be my home institution where I will spend my first and final year of training. I will be based at the Max Delbrück Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin for my second year."

Biomarkers for pre-eclampsia

Describing the focus of his research project, Botha says: “We want to investigate potential biological indicators of pre-eclampsia (biomarkers), by combining computer science with a laboratory-based model to test for feasibility. We hope to find new biomarkers that may improve disease diagnosis and management."

Pre-eclampsia as a disorder of unknown cause that develops in 8-10% of pregnancies and is a leading cause of global maternal and perinatal morbidity and mortality. The disease burden is significantly higher in low- and middle-income countries. It generally develops after week 20 of pregnancy and is characterised by a sudden onset of high blood pressure.

Improving outcomes for mother and child

Botha says they hope the research will shed light on the underlying pathophysiology of pre-eclampsia and that it will aid in improving diagnostic and treatment practices for the disease.

“I hope that we can contribute to improving pregnancy outcomes for mother and child."

The project will entail recruiting some patients from Tygerberg Hospital as part of the global cohort to make the findings globally relevant, says the former Wynberg Boys' High School pupil, who went on to obtain a BSc in molecular biology and biotechnology at SU. He then completed his BSc Honours in biochemistry at SU, before moving to the University of Cape Town to complete an MSc in medical biochemistry.

Previous experience and future plans

Botha previously worked as a technical officer for the Immunology Research Group, also part of the Department of Biomedical Sciences, and as a communications officer for, a non-profit organisation geared towards advancing immunology education for both clinicians and scientists.

Regarding his plans for the future, Botha says South Africa has a severe burden of several diseases, but the research capacity is limited by resources and funding. “I'm hoping to play a part in closing the gap alongside my other excellent colleagues and friends, both here and abroad. I want to return and continue the work, developing research capacity here in South Africa."

Outside of his work and research Botha enjoys time with friends and family, cycling, trail running, hiking, climbing and song writing. He was a member of a band called Money for Bali that used to play in and around South Africa.

He expresses gratitude for the great support from his supervisors and team in Melbourne, Berlin, and Cape Town. “They are all amazing people. I must thank my SU mentors Profs Cathy Cluver and Lina Bergman, who helped me get to where I am today. They are exceptional leaders in this field and have been my biggest supporters."

Caption: Stefan Botha (middle) with colleagues working in the field of pre-eclampsia.