Thandiswa Ngcungcu (South Africa; MSc Student Jan 2011-Aug 2013)

I have always been fascinated with science, particularly the science of life. In grade 11, I was introduced to genetics and that was my favourite part of high school biology. My fascination with genetics led me to complete a BSc degree at Wits, where I majored in Genetics and Developmental Biology and Microbiology and Biotechnology. In the final year of my BSc degree, I was awarded the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship which encouraged me to think about what kind of research I would like to do in the future; this was when I first became interested in non-communicable diseases. I was interested in the genetics of obesity and with the guidance of my then mentors, Prof Ramsay (Wits), Prof McLellan (Wits) and Prof McBride (Bowdoin College), I wrote a proposal for the fellowship titled “Genetic variation in the FTO gene in the black South Africans” which became my project for my BSc (Hons) in Human Genetics. Before joining the NCD Training Programme, I obtained a BSc (Hons) degree in Human Genetics at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. My research interests include the role of genetics in non-communicable disease susceptibility in Africans and monogenic disorders. I would also like to do research on the genetic susceptibility to infectious diseases such as HIV and TB in Africans.

Through the program, I completed a master’s degree in Human Genetics under the supervision of Prof Michele Ramsay and Prof Angela Woodiwiss. Non-communicable disease such as obesity, heart disease and hypertension have reached epidemic levels in many African countries and have added to the already high disease burden, mainly caused by HIV in these countries. I was awarded an MSc degree in 2013 and I am currently completing a PhD degree, with the aim of finding and characterising the casual mutation for keratolytic winter erythema in South African families. Through my PhD project, I have come to appreciate the non-coding genome and its role in shaping genomes and gene regulation.

The great thing about this program is that the projects are interdisciplinary which encourages one to think “outside the box” and explore other fields in science thereby broadening opportunities for future research. The mentorship, leadership training and networking opportunities have enabled me to grow as a scientist.