Contact Us
Class of 2017: Zandisiwe Magwebu

Zandisiwe Magwebu investigates genetics of diseases in vervet monkeys

Zandisiwe Emilia Magwebu is currently working for the South African Medical Research Council under the Primate Unit and Deft Animal Centre (PUDAC), conducting research focusing on non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. She earned her BSc, BSc Hons and MSc (cum laude) in Medical Biosciences from the University of the Western Cape - and at age 29, just added a PhD to her name as well at the UWC Summer Graduation 2017 ceremony for her thesis entitled, Hyperglycinemia in captive-bred Vervet monkeys with cataracts: genetic dynamics and associations.

She’s living proof that poverty is not a lifelong sentence - you can overcome it if you want to, and if you work hard enough, and have the support of people who love you.

Zandisiwe was born in the Eastern Cape, but since her parents could not afford to support nine children, she was raised by her aunt in Worcester, where she attended Siyafuneka Primary School and Vusisizwe Senior Secondary, Worcester.

Her primary school principal was aware of her financial situation, and advised her, as one of the top students, to apply for the African Scholars Fund. The bursary paid for her high school fees, and they were also willing to pay for her college fees should she want to study further.

She did - and earned undergrad merit awards that helped pay for her varsity fees. As a top student in her class, she was selected to be part of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) in 2009, and they went to the USA for a month of training at Wesleyan University.

Dr. Vanessa Brown, the MMUF coordinator at that time, motivated her to register for her PhD - not an easy decision as she was also getting pressured to get a job, and take care of her siblings and her late aunt’s children. In 2011, she joined the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) as an MSc intern at its Primate Unit and Delft Animal Centre (PUDAC)...where her SAMRC/PUDAC supervisor and the unit director also motivated her to register for PhD.

So she did - and this is what she has to say about it...

What exactly is your research about?

My research is about nonketotic hyperglycinemia in captive bred vervet monkeys, which is a rare disease that is affecting mainly newborns. I used an animal model to investigate the genetic cause of this disease and to find a better model that can be used for human related diseases. I’m currently working for SAMRC under the Primate Unit and Deft Animal Centre (PUDAC), where our research focuses on non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Our studies are mainly to develop animal models that can be translated to human disease in order to better the lives of South Africans.

What drove you to work so hard on your studies?

Growing up poor was a strong motivator. Also, the people who used to tell me that I should give up on my dreams of being a scientist, and that I would never achieve anything in life, that I would die poor just like my parents - they motivated me even further. You don’t tell me I cannot achieve something, I will make sure that I prove you wrong. The words “I can’t do it” are not in my vocabulary, because I strongly believe nothing is impossible. Being poor would not stand in the way of me becoming a scientist.

What made you decide to study at UWC?

While I was completing my matric in 2006, the Faculty of Science visited our high school - and I was one of the top three students who were offered the opportunity to enroll at the University of the Western Cape, under the condition that we would select courses from Science. My first preference was actually social sciences - I wanted to be a social worker and help people who are in need, including children who have been abandoned by their parents. But Medical Biosciences actually allows me to contribute to helping people through research.

What are you most proud of achieving at UWC?

Becoming a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow was the biggest achievement in my life; to be part of a recognised international foundation and the first MMUF group at UWC. The people who used to laugh at me because of my financial constraints are now motivated by my achievements. MMUF opened many doors for me and I made my aunt proud.

What is it about this field that excites you so much?

I’m fascinated by molecular biology, especially genetics. Trying to find answers to a particular disease excites me - I want to know the exact pathway and how the disease can be prevented, or how treatment can be improved. In science, there is always a question that requires answers - and new answers sometimes lead to better questions.

What are your future plans?

My new research focus will be type 3 diabetes which is a combination of Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes. And I will be focusing more on improving capacity development in our Unit through collaborations with different research institutions, and publish some of my PhD work. I want to improve my research skills and learn new advanced molecular techniques.

What’s the secret to your success?

I strongly believe in proper planning, perfection, and time management is my strong point. My studies were my first priority, making sure that I perform every task to the best of my ability. It‘s true when they say, “Hard work pays off”. Never let your unfortunate situation stand in the way of achieving your dreams. My motto is, “Nothing is impossible with God” - if some people can do it, so can I.

Do you have any role models?

My aunt was always my pillar of strength, and she always wanted me to study and be independent, like her. I try to live by the words of wisdom she used to share with me: “Never forget who you are and always go for what you believe in, and remember not to compare yourself to anyone.” This was not an easy journey but it was worth every tear shed - and I dedicate it to my late aunt - my number one fan. May her soul continue resting in peace.