CAREER PROFILE : PhD Genetics (Malaria vector control)

Updated: Feb 16






1. Name: Elodie Ekoka

2. Course/ job: PhD candidate in Genetics (Malaria vector control)


3. A levels/ equivalent:

In South Africa and Cameroon, we have a matric exam at the end of high school which gives us access to university. However, in Cameroon (where I did my “matric exam”) we have four types of matric, each with its major and minor subjects:

Type A: majors = French/English literature, 2 additional languages, Philosophy

Type B: majors = Economy, Accounting

Type C: majors = Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry

Type D: majors = Biology and Chemistry

I did the Type C exam and I oriented my career to Biology later, when I moved to South Africa. By the way, Type C matric students also do Biology as one of their minor subjects



4. Your undergraduate degree and masters

I did my Bachelors degree in Human Genetics, my Honours degree (something unique to South Africa and Australia) in Genetics and my Masters degree in Genetics


5. Professional/career Journey in 3 words:


Challenging
Rewarding
Eye-opener


6. Briefly describe your role as PhD student


To date, there is evidence that vaccines (targeting mosquito genes) and genetically modified mosquitoes could offer an additional pillar to the existing malaria vector control strategies. However, either technique requires that we target a gene which is essential for key physiological processes (e.g., blood-feeding, immune response to Plasmodium infection, oviposition, etc.). As a PhD student, my broad focus is to identify and functionally characterize the genes which affect both Plasmodium development inside mosquitoes and the mosquitoes’ fecundity. The results obtained from my study may give insights into novel candidates that could be targeted in future vaccines or Genetically modified mosquitoes.



7. What motivated you to pursue a career in science?


I fell in love with laboratory work from watching cartoons and movies such as Dexter’s laboratory, the Nutty Professor, etc. It may sound simple, but during my childhood that was my only exposure to scientists—on Television. My particular interest in Genetics came during my Bachelor degree where I discovered and was immediately attracted to the broad topic of gene expression and its regulation. I can still remember my favorite chapter, “Transcription”, from which I developed an interest in functional genetics, especially RNA interference.

By the end of my BSc, I knew two things: I wanted to do research in a laboratory and I wanted to learn more about Functional Genetics. However, unlike many, I did not know at that point the particular field I wanted to work in, so I explored different fields along my path. This has lead me to where I am today: Malaria Vector Control research.



8. Describe your Work- Life Balance?


I try to find time each week for extracurricular activities such as playing piano, hitting the gym or spending time with loved ones. Doing my house chores or reading a self-development book also help me relax mentally. Depending on my work load in a particular week, I may allocate more time to these activities. But in general, I give myself one day per week where I do not think of work. It might seem a lot to some, but this is what I personally need to recharge.



9. What advice would you give someone wanting to apply for a phd?


Last year, I wrote a blogpost entitled 10 lessons I learned as a young research scientist which basically contains advice I wish I had known when I started a PhD. Apart from these 10 tips, I will say that a PhD is kind of signing up for three relationships: one with your project, one with your research group and one with your supervisor. Therefore, make sure that you are genuinely comfortable with each of these parties before embarking on a PhD journey. Also, make sure that you have good mentors and a great support group (friends/family).



10. What are the best and worst parts of doing a phd?


Best: A PhD journey is like an all-in-one learning environment where you get the opportunity to develop soft skills (e.g. resilience, emotional management, time management, etc.) and professional skills (e.g. project management, data analysis, mentoring, communication, report writing, decision-making, problem-solving, etc.), all while you are becoming an expert in a particular field and pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Not only these skills are transferable to any field, but you also have flexible hours to work on your PhD, as cherry on the cake!

Worst: I don’t particularly see “worst” but rather “challenging” aspects of a PhD. This is because I learned —the hard way— that if you look at them with the right mindset, and you follow the advice I mentioned above, you will always find something positive or a way to get around what seems to be a “challenge”.



11. What do you see yourself doing afterwards?


I love my current combination of working for both academia (Wits medical school- University of the Witwatersrand) and government (National Institute for Communicable Diseases). It has given me so much exposure to all the different fields I can pursue after my PhD. At the moment, I am attracted to two careers (medical research scientist or medical writer – both with a focus on malaria), but I haven’t made a final decision yet.



12. Did you do a summer internship before your phd? If yes do you believe has benefited you? - if no do you think it made applying for a phd any harder)


I will not call it a “summer internship”, but I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant in my current research group for about four months before applying for a PhD. This allowed me to get to know the people in my research group, to see how well I fitted in the group, how comfortable I felt with my current PhD supervisor, and to check the opportunities given to the Postgraduate students in that group. Thus, by the time I started my PhD in January 2018, I had tested the three relationships I mentioned above and I knew this was definitely the best fit for me: professionally, mentally, and emotionally.



13. How do you feel about the lack of women in Senior STEM roles?


Last year, I had the privilege to meet Ndoni Mcunu (founder and CEO of Black Women in Science– south Africa) and our interaction was an eye-opener: it showed me that while some of us are “complaining” about the gender gap in STEM roles, others are actually DOING something about it. What struck me the most was realizing that she is a PhD student, like me. So I asked myself, what have I done at my level to fix this gender gap? As a woman in general or as a black woman? And my answer (as you guessed) was “nothing”.

How can I sit and do “nothing” while there are several organizations supporting women in science that I can join? How can I sit while there are many social media accounts that I can follow and support? Or better, when I have a couple of social media platforms and I never talk about these issues? And if I do nothing, am I allowed to complain about this issue?

Bottom line? I believe change will happen when each woman in STEM will feel responsible and make her own contribution. May 2019 be a year where we ACTIVELY contribute (in whatever way we can) to reduce the gender inequality in senior STEM roles.



Connect with Elodie on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/elodie_scientist/

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