Women in the pub­lic sec­tor

Linky Mak­gahlela makes her mark in ge­nomics

Public Sector Manager - - Contents -

As a young girl Linky Mak­gahlela hap­pily played among her grand­fa­ther's farm an­i­mals and found her­self fas­ci­nated by them. Lit­tle did she know that would be the be­gin­ning of a re­mark­able jour­ney – one that would lead to her be­com­ing a trend­set­ter.

The lit­tle girl who was sur­rounded by an­i­mals at her grand­fa­ther's house in Mankweng vil­lage in the east of Polokwane, went on to be­come the first South African to hold a PhD in An­i­mal Breed­ing and Ge­net­ics from the Uni­ver­sity of Helsinki in Fin­land.

Mak­gahlela is now a Re­search Team Man­ager for an­i­mal breed­ing and ge­net­ics at the Agri­cul­tural Re­search Coun­cil (ARC) An­i­mal Pro­duc­tion Cam­pus in Tsh­wane.

Hum­ble be­gin­nings

Her grand­fa­ther was a sub­sis­tence farmer who owned pigs, goats, chick­ens, ducks and other an­i­mals.

“I used to won­der why pigs are dif­fer­ent in colour. My grand­fa­ther had all sorts – from white to grey, black and even spot­ted ones. That used to baf­fle me a lot.Then I no­ticed that it was not only pigs that were dif­fer­ent in colour but also chick­ens and cows,” she rem­i­nisced, laugh­ing at the mem­ory that she used to milk goats with her cousins when­ever they vis­ited their ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther.

Af­ter com­plet­ing ma­tric, Mak­gahlela en­rolled at the Uni­ver­sity of the North (now Uni­ver­sity of Lim­popo) to study for a de­gree in agri­cul­ture and ma­jored in an­i­mal pro­duc­tion.

She said that in her first-year ge­net­ics class she learnt that DNA de­ter­mines the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a liv­ing or­gan­ism.“That is when I fi­nally got to un­der­stand why those pigs, cows and chick­ens were dif­fer­ent in colour. I found it in­ter­est­ing and de­cided to choose ge­nomics as a ca­reer,” she ex­plained.

Ge­nomics is the branch of molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy con­cerned with

the struc­ture, func­tion, evo­lu­tion and map­ping of genomes, which is an or­gan­ism's com­plete set of DNA.

End­less op­por­tu­ni­ties

For her Mas­ter of Science de­gree, Mak­gahlela ma­jored in an­i­mal breed­ing and ge­net­ics. Be­cause the Uni­ver­sity of Lim­popo lacked the re­sources needed to prop­erly teach an­i­mal breed­ing at the time, it col­lab­o­rated with the ARC to es­tab­lish an ex­change pro­gramme for stu­dents to do prac­ti­cal work as part of their stud­ies.

That opened a door to end­less op­por­tu­ni­ties for Mak­gahlela.

She used to travel from Lim­popo to Tsh­wane dur­ing her Mas­ter's stud­ies and would stay for about three weeks do­ing her re­search and learn­ing about the ba­sic pro­gramme soft­ware that was used for breed­ing value eval­u­a­tions.

“I learned that re­search re­quires one to work very closely with the in­dus­try and I did ex­actly that. The re­searchers at the ARC ob­served my po­ten­tial and took a lik­ing to me. I was then ap­pointed as the pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme stu­dent in 2004, and that is how I joined the ARC,” she added.

The ARC is an en­tity of the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture, Forestry and Fish­eries and its vi­sion is ex­cel­lence in agri­cul­tural re­search and de­vel­op­ment.

Ge­netic anal­y­sis of dairy cat­tle

“My MSc re­search looked into the ge­netic anal­y­sis of dairy cat­tle, fo­cus­ing on fer­til­ity traits.”

She said her field of study was prompted by the fact that many South African farm­ers have over the years worked on ge­net­i­cally im­prov­ing milk pro­duc­tion. Over time, this has led to a de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in the fit­ness of the cat­tle, be­cause the genes that play a cru­cial role in im­proved milk pro­duc­tion are also re­spon­si­ble for re­duced fit­ness.

“The cows that pro­duced high amounts of milk would start strug­gling with diseases and have fer­til­ity prob­lems,” Mak­gahlela ex­plained.

“We found that many of th­ese dairy farm­ers were get­ting rid of those cows that were no longer fall­ing preg­nant and it so hap­pened that they were the high­pro­duc­ing milk cows. My re­search showed that farm­ers should not only look into milk pro­duc­tion traits, but also look at fer­til­ity and dis­ease traits so that they can op­ti­mise their pro­duc­tion lev­els,” she added.

How­ever, her chal­lenge was that there were in­suf­fi­cient field record­ing sys­tems and poor data col­lec­tion.

The lit­er­a­ture that she was work­ing with in­di­cated that the best route was to use DNA in­for­ma­tion, and that is how she ven­tured fur­ther into the ge­nomic space.

She said the rec­om­men­da­tions that she and fel­low stu­dents came up with dur­ing their MSc re­search projects was that fer­til­ity traits needed to be in­cluded in the ge­netic eval­u­a­tion of dairy cat­tle and that is what the coun­try did in 2009.

“That for me was re­ward­ing: to see that farm­ers were tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion the rec­om­men­da­tions that I came up with in or­der to im­prove their busi­nesses,” she said.

Break­ing new ground

Mak­gahlela was not sure how to go about pur­su­ing her PhD am­bi­tions but her su­per­vi­sors put her in touch with a pro­fes­sor from Iowa State Uni­ver­sity of Science and Tech­nol­ogy in the US.

She vis­ited the uni­ver­sity for about six months be­tween 2008 and 2009 to do in­for­mal train­ing in ge­nomic tech­nolo­gies.

While there, Mak­gahlela de­vel­oped her PhD pro­posal with the help of the pro­fes­sors from that uni­ver­sity.

At that time, no one in South Africa pos­sessed the knowl­edge to su­per­vise the work that she wanted to pur­sue. That meant that Mak­gahlela had to ei­ther find a su­per­vi­sor lo­cally and an­other one from a for­eign coun­try who would su­per­vise the tech­ni­cal side of things, or find a suitable over­seas uni­ver­sity that would ad­mit her.

She ap­plied to the Uni­ver­sity of Helsinki in Fin­land and was ac­cepted. Mak­gahlela moved to Fin­land in 2010 to pur­sue her dreams and came back in 2014. Her job was still wait­ing for her at the ARC, which also funded her stud­ies.

Upon ar­rival, she was ap­pointed as a se­nior re­searcher.

“It made me feel proud to re­alise that I was the first one in the coun­try to have that kind of ex­per­tise. I was the only one with the skill when I came back from Fin­land, but now the ARC has in­vested more in hu­man cap­i­tal de­vel­op­ment in this space and I see a num­ber of new­com­ers to the ge­nomics tech­nol­ogy space,” she said.

In 2016, she was ap­pointed as a Re­search Team Man­ager, a po­si­tion that she still oc­cu­pies.

Some of her re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­clude keep­ing up with the trends in ge­nomic se­lec­tion.

Mak­gahlela still puts to­gether pro­pos­als and shops for fund­ing to sup­port MSc or PhD stu­dents to com­plete their the­sis stud­ies while work­ing on re­lated ARC projects.

The most im­por­tant part of her job is to es­tab­lish and main­tain a good re­la­tion­ship with key stake­hold­ers such as gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and uni­ver­si­ties. She also has to con­stantly en­gage with the agri­cul­tural in­dus­try.

In ad­di­tion, she over­sees the ad­min­is­tra­tion side of the busi­ness and man­ages, de­vel­ops and trains peo­ple who have the skills needed by the ARC.

Mak­gahlela's team con­sists of 88 peo­ple – com­pris­ing spe­cial­ist re­searchers, se­nior re­searchers, re­searchers, ju­nior re­searchers and stu­dents.“While I am the Re­search Team Man­ager for an­i­mal breed­ing and ge­net­ics, I am also the Re­search Team Man­ager for the germplasm re­pro­duc­tive tech­nolo­gies in Irene in Tsh­wane.

Find­ing so­lu­tions

“One thing that I love about re­search is that you come up with a ques­tion, you solve the ques­tion and come up with so­lu­tions that ac­tu­ally change peo­ple's lives. Noth­ing is as sat­is­fy­ing as know­ing that you have de­vel­oped some­thing that changes lives,” she said.

Two of the as­so­ci­a­tions Mak­gahlela is cur­rently work­ing with are the Brah­man Cat­tle Breed­ers' So­ci­ety and the Afrikaner Cat­tle Breed­ers' So­ci­ety. She also works closely with small­holder farm­ers for her cur­rent re­search projects.

“We keep up­dat­ing them about tech­nolo­gies that they can use to im­prove how they do their busi­ness,” she said.

Her job does not come without chal­lenges and one of them is that less money is af­forded for fun­da­men­tal re­search, whereas more money is af­forded for de­vel­op­men­tal re­search.

She said her main chal­lenge is to over­come the odds and cre­ate a vi­brant re­search en­vi­ron­ment.

“For us to be able to make more im­pact we need to pool re­sources,” she said.

Her cur­rent re­search aims to es­tab­lish a re­search pro­gramme in live­stock ge­nomics with the view to im­ple­ment­ing ge­nomic se­lec­tion in the na­tional live­stock im­prove­ment pro­grammes.

Mak­gahlela is also in­ves­ti­gat­ing harm­ful/re­ces­sive genes im­pair­ing fer­til­ity in beef cat­tle and genes as­so­ci­ated with adap­ta­tion and dis­ease re­sis­tance in live­stock.

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