Home After School Medical Microbiology – Reflections of a Postdoctoral Researcher

Medical Microbiology – Reflections of a Postdoctoral Researcher

by Annique Bolliger

Are you an international student who is interested in studying medical microbiology in South Africa? Dr. Pedro Abrantes left his home country, Mozambique, after finishing his secondary education, having decided that he would come to Cape Town to pursue his studies in Medical Bioscience. In this article, he reflects on the challenging yet highly-rewarding journey from student life to the successful academic he is today.

From Maputo to Cape Town

I am originally from Mozambique where I studied at a private school. When the time came to select a field of study in grade 10 (Portuguese education system) I chose to study natural sciences. This path was a result of vocational tests conducted at the school, as my career choices were not clear at the time. My major subjects were Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics.

At the end of my secondary education I applied to study at different institutions and was accepted at universities in the UK, Portugal, Australia and South Africa. In 2003 I moved to Cape Town and enrolled as a student at the University of the Western Cape for studies in Medical Sciences. The proximity of South Africa to my home country, the lower cost of living and the fact that the particular Medical Biosciences course is the only programme of its kind in the continent were all driving factors that made me choose this institution. Looking back I am glad I made that choice. The University of the Western Cape, which started as a ‘second-class’ apartheid-generated college is today one of the top universities in Africa and an internationally recognised leader in many fields, especially in the natural sciences.

Adjusting to Student Life

The first year of university can be difficult, especially when studying sciences. I was a teenager living on my own and had to learn how to budget, cook, wash my clothes, sew buttons and so much more… all of this in a new place with a different culture and language. I did miss home in the beginning and my first Cape Town winter caught me by surprise, as it contrasted with the sub-tropical climate back at home.

I was very lucky to have found a group of friends who knew how to have fun but also respected one another when the time came to study, as that was the main priority. It is when I meet students who go off the rails and forget about the reason why their parents made sacrifices to give them a better education that I realise how fortunate I was.

It was a great privilege for me to have parents who were able to support me in the first part of my studies, albeit with some difficulty at times. In 2006, while studying for my Honours, I became part of the Work-Study programme at my institution. This not only allowed me to have some extra income, but also gave me a lot of experience. I cleaned and organised the labs, tutored undergraduate students and helped in practical laboratory classes.

I studied towards my B.Sc. (Medical Biosciences) degree from 2003 to 2005. This programme combines Anatomy, Physiology and Medical Microbiology as its major subjects. If you choose to study MBS you will also have to study modules in Life Sciences, Chemistry and Computer Science (1st year), Biotechnology and/or Zoology (2nd year), apart from other electives. Things do get a bit easier at third level, as you will be better prepared to handle the stresses of undergraduate studies. It will still require a lot of dedication though. I remember the days and nights of studying for multiple exams on the same week, living on a diet of coffee, chocolate and two minute noodles, memorising diagrams, having no social life during study period and leaving campus at 8pm after writing two exams on the same day. Yes, you go a bit crazy in those few weeks as your brain is in constant overdrive!

Starting New Chapters – Medical Microbiology, Research, and Lecturing

Undergraduate studies can be incredibly consuming, but there comes a point when finally, it’s over. It’s an amazing feeling to know you have completed your degree. The relief is there, but so is a feeling of nostalgia… then the question ‘Now what do I do?’

I went to the Honours selection interview in 2005, chose a supervisor based on the research field I enjoyed the most (Medical Microbiology) and was very lucky that she accepted me into her research group. This allowed me to enrol for my Honours degree the following year.  What followed was my Masters, which was subsequently upgraded to a PhD. I am now a postdoctoral researcher.

During my postgraduate studies I worked on Candida, a fungus that is normally harmless in healthy people but which debilitates the health of immunocompromised patients, such as in the case of HIV infection. My research involved collecting samples from patients in South Africa and Cameroon and looking at which Candida species were present in these patients and to see if the drugs that are commonly prescribed to treat these infections actually work. I furthered my research by applying Molecular Biology techniques on these isolates and am now working with my colleagues on endogenous fungal and bacterial infections in at-risk population groups, such as in HIV-infected patients, diabetic patients and pregnant mothers whose infections place them at risk of pre-term delivery.

In 2008 I was invited to lecture Medical Microbiology and Infection Control to Oral Hygiene students from the Faculty of Dentistry. I said yes. As a 24-year old it was a completely new experience to be on the other side of the lecture hall. In the following semester I was lecturing 2nd year Dentistry students. Further down the line I was teaching at UWC’s School of Pharmacy. Currently I teach approximately 300 students a year, in three different departments across two campuses.

Read more on Pedro’s research and publications.

Be an Agent of Change

We tend to believe that life gets easier but it always comes with ups and downs and different challenges. My studies have, however, allowed me to present my research at different local and international conferences, in places I would not have been able to go otherwise. Seeing my research published in international scientific journals and being acknowledged by my peers are also reassuring signs of a job well done.

If there is one piece of advice I can give students it has to be: Don’t give up. Things will be very uncertain at times. You might have a difficult module that just doesn’t make any sense. It will seem as if all is crumbling and no matter how much you study, it is just too overwhelming. Life will throw difficult circumstances in your path. But never ever give up. Do your best, and then some more.

I believe that the trick to survive university life is to use the resources that are available to you (library, writing center, institutional support services etc.) and to use your time wisely. Attend every class and make notes for yourself. Get involved in extramural activities if you can: volunteer at a charity; join a sports/reading/meditation group. And don’t forget to be responsible. Be an agent of change. Do your best to increase your chances of standing out when furthering your studies or looking for a job.. But most of all enjoy your student life. Believe me, these are some of the best years of your life.

EduConnect 2cents

Leaving your home country to complete your studies in an entirely new place can be daunting at first. It requires an open mind and the ability to adjust to a new and unfamiliar environment while still focusing on your work. It can also be particularly challenging when you suddenly need to start thinking academically in a second or third language – it’s tough enough in a first language. So in moments when you feel you might shrivel up into a quivering ball of hopelessness (we’ve all been there), reach out for help. It’s there for you!


Requirements for Studies in Medical Biosciences

  • High School Subjects:  Pure Maths, Life Sciences
  • Entry Requirements at UWC: English (L4), 2nd Language (L3), Pure Maths (L4), Life Sciences (L4)

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