PhD candidate Valentine Saasa is leading from the front
with science communication
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.