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Class Of 2019: Jodene Foster On Genomics, Communal Farming And The Love Of Little Things

Author: Nicklaus Kruger

Growing up in Kraaifontein, Jodene Foster had few scientific role models to follow, so she became one instead. She has just earned her MSc cum laude from UWC for groundbreaking research on bacteria in Steinkopf in the Northern Cape.

(Published - 2 September 2019)

“I didn’t choose genomics. Genomics chose me - and I’m glad it did.”

As an undergrad, Jodene Foster enjoyed field work and zoology and botany - but when she got the option to do microscopy work and delve into the world of microbes, there was no turning back.

“The more I find out and learn about them the more I realise that the bigger animals that everyone falls in love with depend on my little ones - and my little ones could collapse an entire ecosystem,” she says.

That love guided her through her research, and she’s now received her MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, cum laude, from the University of the Western Cape.

Her thesis, Composition of bacterial species in Steinkopf a communal farming area in South Africa: A closer look at pathogenesis, looked at the bacterial microbiota within communal farming areas (specifically Steinkopf in the Northern Cape) to determine the types of bacteria present – and whether any of those bacterial species present were pathogenic. 

“Our communal livestock ranges are extremely neglected, and many previous studies have shown that small-scale and communal farmers are at greater risk of contracting zoonotic diseases because of their close relationship with their livestock.”

However, this field of study has not been studied at all in South Africa, and the only other African country studied has been Ethiopia. After that study, Ethiopia was able to adjust their farming strategy and now make use of communal livestock for meat production as well - removing the strain from commercial farming and allowing practices in commercial farms to be improved.

“So from my work, we were able to inform the community we worked with on how best to manage their local water bodies - all while discovering new biological data,” she says. “Everybody wins.”

Three pathogenic bacteria (and 37 potential pathogenic bacterial genera) were identified within the Steinkopf communal farming rangeland; however, they occur at relatively low percentages and currently are not seen as a threat to the communal rangeland.

“The good news: Steinkopf is currently not at risk of bacterial pathogens - but if environmental conditions were to change and become more favourable these low percentage bacteria might be able to increase.”

Seasonality plays a key role in the growth of microbes. 

Steinkopf is unique in the sense that it has both a winter (Succulent Karoo) and a summer (Nama Karoo) rainfall region. About 85% of herders migrate with their livestock between these rainfall regions, ultimately leaving a particular area without any livestock disturbance. This migration of livestock removes one competitor from the ecosystem and allows bacteria the time to become a stable community within the ecosystem.

Bacteria survive best in particular parameters. The summer rainfall region meet these parameters better than the winter rainfall region. In other words, the summer rainfall region had a higher species richness and unique OTUs (operational taxonomic groups - unique groups of similar bacteria classified together).

“One might think communal farming systems are simple ecosystems, but actually, the intricate manner in which these systems are treated and the level of indigenous knowledge used is pretty complicated, and can only be understood if one actively takes time to learn about it,” she says.

“We should not ignore our indigenous tribes, and the vast amount of knowledge they hold. If we could take the time to listen to and understand how they have used their lands to survive, we could learn a lot.”

Learning From The Past, Looking To The Future

Jodene was born in East London, and raised in Cape Town by a single mother. An active child at school, she was deputy head girl, served on the RCL, participated in sports (soccer and athletics) and was part of the drama club.

“Growing up in Kraaifontein I had few role models aside from my mother,” she says. “Science as a field of study was not really considered an acceptable career path - so I had no idea what I truly wanted to do.”

She originally wanted to be a vet – but UWC changed her mind.

“I applied to the Biodiversity and Conservation Biology Department because it was the closest I could get to veterinary science,” she says. “I thought I could then apply for vet science after I finished my BSc. But I was so intrigued that I decided to stay.”

“By final year, I was able to juggle my academic career, tutor in the department and work weekends without feeling drained or tired, since I found motivation in the passion I had developed for my work.”

Her interest was piqued by genetics and evolutionary biology - convincing her current supervisor, Dr Adriaan Engelbrecht, to help her pursue her postgraduate studies in the Udubs Evolutionary Genomics Lab (UEG Lab).

“My project involved using next generation sequencing techniques to investigate the potential impact of bacterial species in communal farming areas, which is highly understudied,” she says. “I worked even harder with the realisation that my work could significantly change the lives of countless pastoral farmers in South Africa.

“I want to do my PhD next, and to get some work experience as well,” she says. “I also have many community projects that I want to start and get running.”

She wants to work with primary or high schools in the area, helping them see that it’s possible to study science even if they come from a disadvantaged area.

“Many young girls don’t realise the potential they hold and allow circumstances to define what and who they should be,” she says. “If we could encourage our young girls and allow them the opportunity to find and define what and who they should be, we won’t only be helping them achieve their own dreams - we’ll also be ensuring a stronger and more sustainable society for future generations.”

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