Youth Month Feature: Naomi Okugbeni-Doghor

Meet Ms Naomi Okugbeni-Doghor, a doctoral candidate within the TB Host Genetics Research Group at 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 was born and bred in the busy city of Lagos State, Nigeria. I grew up under the guidance of a disciplinarian father and the counsel of a very selfless mother. I did my high schooling in Lagos and then moved to South Africa. I enrolled for my first degree, Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Biomedicine at Pearson Institute of Higher Education (formerly known as Midrand Graduate Institute). In 2016, I enrolled for my Honours degree in Human Genetics at the FMHS, SU. Upon completion, I registered for my Master’s program which was subsequently upgraded to a Doctorate (PhD) program

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

I would say this field chose me. Growing up, I envisioned every possible career option, mostly in the STEM axis. The following people played important roles to guide my career path:

Dr Yemi Ajayi- He was my mentor after high school. He introduced me to the world of Genetics. That opened the door to a lot of my scientific thoughts.

Dr Mia Beyleveld- My undergraduate lecturer. The flair she exhibited when dishing out knowledge and its application thereof was just too desirous.

Dr Marilyn Hurwitz- My undergraduate lecturer. She made me appreciate the physiology of the human body.

Prof. Craig Kinnear- My postgraduate supervisor. He gives me the freedom to explore and develop a passion for the things I do now.

Prof. Ben Loos- My postgraduate supervisor. He lights up every time he talks about Microscopy and its application. Definitely inspiring.

I am very grateful to have crossed paths with them, they made my journey a lot easier.

What is your research focus on?

I study Autophagy, a biological pathway and its role in the context of Tuberculosis (TB) infection. This pathway is responsible for degrading old and unwanted cellular material in our body cells, including pathogenic bacteria and viruses. TB, caused by the bacteria- Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M.tb) devises ways to avoid Autophagic killing. I study how to induce Autophagy to aid more efficient killing of M.tb.

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

Africa carries a huge burden of Tuberculosis, thousands of people continue to die each year from this disease. We need new drugs to kill the bacteria as the current ones are becoming less effective. My research aims to identify new targets in Autophagy for TB drug discovery.

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

Distance from family. For six years of high school education, I was in a boarding school. This definitely shaped a lot of my attributes and behaviours. Moving to another country for my undergraduate studies was not as hard as I thought, my friends definitely made that easier. The hardest blow was moving to another province for my postgraduate degrees while still living in a foreign country. I had to leave my husband behind, which was really hard. I am grateful for all the opportunities I have had and the strengths I have acquired along the way.

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

This is a tough one.

Dr Carine Sao Emani- Her scientific journey inspires me. I always love hearing her advice.

Prof. David Russell- He has firm opinions on the biology of Tuberculosis. I would like to hear more on those.

Prof. Yoshinori Ohsumi- His discoveries in the field of Autophagy made a lot of advances in understanding various diseases. I would like to hear about his challenges.

What is your favourite quote/saying?

“Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding”. – Proverbs 4:7 King James Version of the Bible.

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

Let your passion guide you, I doubt you’d ever go wrong.

Also, it is said that the best way to learn is to teach. Keep mentoring people all through your journey, you won’t go wrong either.

Lastly, choose your supervisor wisely and maintain a good relationship. He/she will play a huge role in your journey.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?

I hope to have made ground-breaking discoveries while mentoring people to achieve their goals.