Youth Month Feature: Yolandi Swart

Meet Miss Yolandi Swart, a doctoral candidate within the TB Host Genetics Research Group at the Stellenbosch University’s Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

In celebration of Youth Month 2020, the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics is paying tribute to young researchers within our institute. We share heart-warming stories of our students whose lives give us great hope for the future of South Africa. We thank these students for volunteering to tell us a little about themselves and their research.

Tell us briefly about your background?

I grew up in Pretoria and completed my BSc in biological sciences, as well as BSc(Hons) in Genetics at Stellenbosch University. I continued my studies at the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, Faculty of Medicine and Health in Sciences, Stellenbosch University and was fortunate to upgrade my MSc to a PhD in 2019. I am currently completing my PhD studies.

Why did you choose your field of study – what or who inspired you? Is this what you envisioned for yourself growing up?

I was initially enrolled for B.Com Actuarial Sciences in my first year, since I was very fond of mathematics and statistics. I still however had a big interest in biology and decided to convert to B.Sc Human life sciences in 2014. Genetics immediately caught my attention, since there was a statistical component to it and I decided to pursue genetics and completed my Honours in genetics in 2017. I was also part of a clinical trial at the age of 12 and new insulin was tested on me. This manifested a deep interest in me to conduct research and somehow I knew I would end up in a research environment contributing to health and medicine.

What is your research focus on?

My research focusses on conducting genomic data analysis on admixed populations of African origin who are affected by both tuberculosis (TB) and type 2 diabetes (T2D) in order to identify genetic regions associated with TB-T2D comorbidity. Current software and algorithms used in genomic data analysis are not transferable to highly complex admixed genomes, such as that seen in Africa. People from Africa harbours the most genetic diversity compared to other populations worldwide. Due to the history and migration routes of the Bantu expansion and slave trade, most populations from Africa have admixed genomes, consisting of a mosaic pattern of two or more non-intermating ancestral populations. Therefore, my research focusses on correctly incorporating local ancestry (similar as to painting the genome to identify which ancestry is present at every position in the genome) in statistical analysis.

How can your research help to improve Africa and/or the lives of its people?

Making genomic data analysis transferable to admixed African populations, will enable robust and accurate identification of genomic regions associated with disease phenotypes, such as TB, T2D and TB-T2D comorbidity. This will provide a framework to understand the genetic variability in admixed populations from Africa. It will also serve as a genetic toolbox which can be used by other researchers to conduct genetic data analysis on other highly admixed populations associated with other communicable and non-communicable diseases. Genetic variants could be identified and used for personalised medicine specifically designed for African populations, that would otherwise not be applicable to other populations globally. Treatment strategies could be improved for the most vulnerable populations based on the genetics of admixed African populations and subsequently relieve the burden of health-related costs, as well as improve quality of life. Since treatment strategies designed based on European ancestral contributions will not necessarily work in admixed individuals of African origin.

What obstacles did you have to overcome to get where you are today?

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (auto-immune disease) at the age of 9 and I need to inject myself with insulin approximately 6 times a day. This had an immense impact on my everyday life and I need to monitor my blood glucose levels carefully on a daily basis. I always thought this will be a disadvantage in my life, but it made me more sympathetic towards people living with chronic diseases and those individuals who don’t have the same resources to treat chronic diseases such as type 1 diabetes. This also made me realise that children with type 1 diabetes in poorer communities might not get the adequate healthcare as they should be and can be difficult to follow a healthy lifestyle in such circumstances. Therefore, I would like to use my experiences living with a chronic disease to improve healthcare and research in South Africa.      

If you could invite any three researchers (alive or dead; local or international) to a dinner party, who would you pick and why? 

Rosalind Franklin. She was a British biophysicist who studied DNA. Her data was critical to Francis crick and James Watson who won the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine for their 1953 determination of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). But she didn’t get any recognition for her contribution towards this discovery due to being female.

Mary Jackson. She was an American mathematician and aerospace engineer, and became NASA’s first African-American female engineer.

What is your favourite quote/saying?

“Once you stop learning, you start dying” – Albert Einstein

Any advice for young people who are considering a career in STEM?

My advice would be to get a daily routine which works for you and consistently work on your research every day. It worked for me to set out a five day work week and take weekends off so I can still enjoy the things I like to do without feeling guilty for not working. This is vital for my mental health and regaining my energy to continue working on my research project. All the little efforts each day adds up in the end, even if you only sorted the structure of your thesis.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?

I would like to conduct research in the future on autoimmune diseases and rare diseases affecting children at a young age in resource-restricted environments. I would also like to make a mark as a female scientist in bioinformatics, which are often dominated by male scientists.

Link to my latest research article entitled: “Prospective avenues for human population genomics and disease mapping in southern Africa”  –