PhD can­di­date Valen­tine Saasa is lead­ing from the front

with sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion

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A young, fe­male PhD can­di­date’s re­search and work on de­vel­op­ing a non-in­va­sive way of mon­i­tor­ing di­a­betes mel­li­tus is an in­spi­ra­tion for all as we cel­e­brate Women’s

Month this Au­gust.

Valen­tine Saasa (27), a PhD can­di­date at the Coun­cil for Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search (CSIR), not only wants to make an im­pact on so­ci­ety but wants to help oth­ers do so too.

Born and raised in ru­ral Bot­lokwa in Lim­popo, Saasa at­tended Letheba High School be­fore ob­tain­ing a Bach­e­lor of Sci­ence de­gree in 2011 and a Bio­chem­istry Hon­ours de­gree in 2012, both from the Uni­ver­sity of Lim­popo where she spe­cialised in medic­i­nal plant ex­trac­tion for di­a­betes mel­li­tus man­age­ment.

She ob­tained her Bio­chem­istry Mas­ter’s de­gree (cum laude) in 2016 from the Uni­ver­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg, with CSIR as a spon­sor. Her th­e­sis fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing a tech­nol­ogy to mon­i­tor blood glu­cose with­out us­ing nee­dles.

“We were us­ing hu­man breath, in­stead of blood tests, to mea­sure the amount of ace­tone a hu­man emits,” said Saasa, who ex­plained that di­a­betes mel­li­tus is a metabolic dis­ease caused by in­sulin de­fi­ciency.

“In­sulin is a hor­mone that con­verts the food we eat, such as starch, to us­able en­ergy. When in­sulin is not at work, as in the case of di­a­betes, the body pro­duces ke­tone bod­ies such as ace­tone.

“Ace­tone is a mol­e­cule pro­duced by di­a­betic pa­tients when they have high blood glu­cose to com­pen­sate the en­ergy-de­mand­ing or­gans and tis­sues, such as the brain. That’s why we used hu­man breath to de­tect ace­tone and cor­re­late it with blood glu­cose,” she said.

The project went well.“The re­sults showed an above 70 per­cent cor­re­la­tion be­tween breath ace­tone and blood ace­tone,” she con­firmed.

Saasa is now en­rolled for a Bio­chem­istry PhD at the Uni­ver­sity of Pre­to­ria. Her PhD project still aims to de­velop a non-in­va­sive way of mon­i­tor­ing di­a­betes mel­li­tus, but this time us­ing tung­sten (WO3) as a po­ten­tial ace­tone sen­sor.The project falls un­der a big­ger one –

Breath Anal­yser Nan­otech­nolo­gies for Dis­ease De­tec­tion which is led by Dr Bonex Mwakikunga.

“I wish to re­place the cur­rent di­ag­no­sis and mon­i­tor­ing of blood glu­cose for di­a­betic pa­tients which in­volves the use of blood tests that can ac­ci­den­tally cause other in­fec­tious dis­eases, es­pe­cially in South Africa where HIV is a preva­lent blood-borne ill­ness.

“I am also in­ter­ested in mak­ing sure that pa­tients mon­i­tor their dis­ease with a cost-ef­fec­tive and pain-free de­vice, which only re­quires their breath,” said Saasa, who has pub­lished jour­nals and a book chap­ter, and has pre­sented her work at con­fer­ences.

Saasa was a fi­nal­ist in the CSIR/ MSM Best Masters Awards and was se­lected for the Women in Sci­ence Pro­gramme, a joint project by the Bri­tish Coun­cil and the Academy of Sci­ence South Africa (ASSA), for out­stand­ing ef­fort in sup­port­ing women in sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion. She was of­fered a trip to the United King­dom for early ca­reer de­vel­op­ment train­ing.

In 2016, she was a proud re­cip­i­ent of the De­part­ment of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy (DST) South Africa Women in Sci­ence Award.The fol­low­ing year, she was a joint re­cip­i­ent of the DST’s Doc­toral Award, which she notes as one of the high­lights of her ca­reer. Saasa was also se­lected by CSIR in 2017 as the youth who put CSIR on the map and was in­ter­viewed in CSIR me­dia and on sev­eral radio sta­tions for her in­no­va­tive PhD re­search.

“I am pas­sion­ate about sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion and founded the Capricorn Ed­u­ca­tional Re­source Cen­tre, a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion that aims to pop­u­larise sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics (STEM) as at­trac­tive, rel­e­vant and ac­ces­si­ble to learn­ers in ru­ral ar­eas and to pop­u­larise STEM to the broader pub­lic so that so­ci­ety crit­i­cally en­gages with sci­ence’s key as­pects and ap­pre­ci­ates its en­deav­ours,” she said.

Saasa at­tracted fund­ing from the Na­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion/ South African Agency for Sci­ence Ad­vance­ment and the DST to or­gan­ise and fa­cil­i­tate Na­tional Sci­ence Week in 2017 and 2018, which en­ables the DST and govern­ment en­ti­ties to show­case govern­ment’s in­ter­est in de­vel­op­ing re­search in­fra­struc­ture.

She also or­gan­ised a work­shop on Women in Sci­ence Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Lim­popo, which was funded by the DST, ASSA and the Bri­tish Coun­cil New­ton Fund, to raise aware­ness of sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills.

When it comes to her job, Saasa said that every day is an op­por­tu­nity to learn new things.“I don’t con­sider it a job but a place where I can in­crease my in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­ity and learn from great peo­ple. I can then use what I have learnt to make an im­pact on so­ci­ety, through the discovery of new tech­nol­ogy,” she said.

A bio­chemist by pro­fes­sion, Saasa ini­tially found it chal­leng­ing to work on a project that is fo­cused on ma­te­rial sci­ence and thus dom­i­nated by chemists, chem­i­cal engi­neers and physi­cists.

“It was chal­leng­ing at first, es­pe­cially dur­ing group meet­ings and pre­sen­ta­tions when I didn’t un­der­stand what was be­ing said. But I chal­lenged my­self to work on a

PhD project that is mostly fo­cused on ma­te­rial sci­ence. I be­lieve that for a per­son to grow, they must do what they have never done.The de­ci­sion was worth it as I am do­ing very well in the field. I learnt on my own, not in a class­room, through ex­ten­sive read­ing and re­search,” she said.

Saasa be­lieves that her suc­cess is due to oth­ers who took the time to men­tor her. “I would like to do the same for oth­ers and help the youth to be­come the best sci­en­tists or pro­fes­sion­als in their re­spec­tive field. I am for­mal­is­ing the co-su­per­vis­ing of mas­ter's stu­dents at the Uni­ver­sity of Lim­popo’s De­part­ment of Bio­chem­istry. Af­ter ob­tain­ing my PhD I am will­ing to men­tor or su­per­vise Mas­ter's and PhD stu­dents. I will make sure they achieve 10 times more than I achieve, so that they can also have an im­pact on so­ci­ety,” she said.

This Women’s Month Saasa urges women to seek op­por­tu­ni­ties, es­pe­cially in STEM re­search. “When an op­por­tu­nity presents it­self, work twice as hard as your male coun­ter­parts.The uni­verse recog­nises and re­wards women who work hard in this field, which was pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered a man’s world,” she said.

Saasa is in­spired by the fear­less­ness of the women who took part in the 1956 Women’s March.“In those days women were not meant to voice their opin­ion. They were su­pressed and sup­posed to be obe­di­ent. For them to stand up to pa­tri­archy, es­pe­cially dur­ing the apartheid regime, showed the true ‘mboko­dos’,” said Saasa.

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