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#STEMStories: Yashodani, PhD Candidate, South Africa

Name: Yashodani Pillay
Role/Occupation: PhD Candidate: Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences (UKZN)
Country: South Africa

Yashodani Pillay is completing a PhD in Toxicology and Molecular Biology at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (UKZN). Her current research focuses on toxin contamination in food, which disproportionately affects developing countries such as South Africa where food transportation and storage infrastructure is limited, as a possible etiological agent in non-communicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs have risen rapidly in recent years, particularly in developing nations to become the leading cause of mortality worldwide. Although the current strategy used to address NCDs focusses on healthy diets and lifestyle changes, her research indicates that food quality is also an important consideration when tackling NCDs.

Pillay has always been fascinated by the complex relationship between humans and disease. When she began her career as a scientist, she was unsure of how to combine her love for the innovation and problem-solving of the science field with her passion for social justice. Pillay completed her BSc in Biomedical Sciences at UKZN. She undertook additional research assistantships in parasitology and ecology during her undergraduate years as she was uncertain of what she wanted to specialise in after graduation. To get a feel for the different avenues available to her, she selected final year research projects in the fields of Biology and Medical Biochemistry. She found that she thoroughly enjoyed the variety of molecular techniques and projects in Medical Biochemistry and chose to complete her honours, from which she graduated summa cum laude and then master (which she has now upgraded to a PhD) in that field. Whilst at university, she had the opportunity to work with different NGOs, government and international agencies in health, policy and education. This gave her a chance to use her acquired skills for real life applications. Pillay hopes to eventually go into public health and use this knowledge in evidence based policy and initiatives or to enter a graduate medical/public health integrated program to combine these interests.

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Pillay says that one of her strangest experiences as a woman in the STEM space has been that, “people often mistake me for a man over written correspondence and are then surprised when we meet or chat over the phone.” She hopes that her presence as a female scientist goes some way towards breaking down that perception. Her advice to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field is to not be afraid to speak up, “sometimes people fail to realize that women make up half the world’s population and bring with them half the world’s problems and half the world’s solutions too. Your unique perspective brings innovation to the field.”

She feels that African scientists are under immense pressure to produce high level, competitive research with far fewer resources their foreign counterparts. But she also feels that “this forces us to be innovative and to collaborate and I think we are slowly eroding any stereotypes that still exist.” Pillay believes that the continent has great potential for growth and that the key would be to “engage more youth in STEM, dismantle preconceived ideas about the sector [that it is] too difficult, just for academics, western ideology, “out of reach” – all of which are simply not true as scientific concepts underlie all our day to day lives, make it more relatable to more groups in our country and provide better support structures for youth entering STEM…” She is really encouraged when she sees that research done here is on par with international research. For instance, her oral presentation was nominated for an award at the Eurotox2016 conference in Spain.

Over time, she has realised that a better work life balance leads to better work and wellbeing in the long run. This means prioritizing what she refers to as the productivity pillars in her life: sleep, exercise and fresh food. She says that this may “sound elementary but when working under deadlines and time dependent experiments these can easily run away from you.”

Combine the use of all your senses, your love for knowledge and your support for women in STEM as you delve further into this interview on how this enamoured Geeky Girl, Yashodani Pillay combines her love for science and her passion for social justice.

1. Describe what your work entails.

I’m doing a PhD in Toxicology and Molecular Biology using an in vitro model. Basically, I test food borne toxins on human cells grown in an artificial environment. We can alter this environment to simulate different conditions in the body. We then isolate different cellular components (DNA, protein, RNA for example) and run a variety of downstream tests that can tell us about changes to their integrity or the system. It’s a lot of lab hours but also a lot of office-based hours too, which most people don’t expect. Planning experiments and experimental design, grant applications, writing articles, analysing data, troubleshooting, maintaining admin and organization are also important parts of being a medical scientist. In more technical terms: the incidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) (diabetes, cancer, heart disease) has risen rapidly in recent years, particularly in developing nations to become the leading cause of mortality worldwide. My current research focuses on toxin contamination in food (which disproportionately affects developing countries where food transport and storage infrastructure is limited) as a possible etiological agent in NCDs. While current strategy to address NCDs focusses on healthy diets and lifestyle changes our research indicates food quality is also an important consideration. I hope to eventually go into public health to use this knowledge in evidence based policy and initiatives, or go into a graduate medical/public health integrated program to combine these interests.

2. Describe your STEM journey.

The complex relationship between humans and disease has always fascinated me. I began my career as a scientist with a love for the innovation and problem-solving in science and passion for social justice, though uncertain of how to bring them together. I completed my BSc in Biomedical Sciences in 2012. I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to specialise in for honours and postgrad so undertook additional research assistantships in parasitology and ecology during my undergraduate years and selected my final year research projects in Biology and Medical Biochemistry (to get a feel for the different fields available to me). I really enjoyed the variety of molecular techniques and projects in Medical Biochemistry and so decided to stay for honours (summa cum laude) and then masters which I upgraded to PhD. While at university studying the science behind disease I’ve worked with different NGOs, government and international agencies in health, policy and education. This has given me a chance to use the skills acquired in my training for real life applications and impact and has been greatly rewarding.

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3. What excites you about your job? What motivates you to get out of bed every morning?

I’d say I have a top 3. I love how science is at the forefront of innovation, discovery and solutions. That we can learn from laboratory data and the scientific method and improve real life situations, applications and the lives of others. I love that science has a place for creativity and design – both at experimental level and communication in images and presentations.

4. How would you describe your experience as a woman in the STEM space?

People often mistake me for a man over written correspondence and are then surprised when we meet or chat over the phone – that’s probably been the strangest thing for me. I hope my presence in the field goes some way towards breaking down that perception. But in terms of day to day laboratory life; I have an incredibly supportive supervisor. He constantly encourages me to pursue my interests and has been my main pillar of support during the thesis write up. Our department is certainly female dominated (of the 14 post grads and post docs, 3 are male). We’re all passionate about our field and sharing that with people who want to learn more.

5. What advice would you give to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field?

Firstly, there’s a lot more failure than success (literally) in science and research– so be ready for that. You learn quickly not to take yourself too seriously, that each failure is pointing you in a direction you may have missed before, and to take every opportunity you can to learn.

Secondly, there will always be people telling what you should be and how you should be. But the best thing you can be is yourself – for you and your field. Don’t be afraid to speak up –chances are that others in some way connect with your experience or it brings something new to the table. Sometimes people fail to realize that women make up half the world’s population and bring with them half the world’s problems and half the world’s solutions too. Your unique perspective brings innovation to the field.

6. As a STEM woman in Africa, how do you foresee the growth and progress of STEM on the continent? Is Africa a “land of opportunity”?

I think African scientists are often under immense pressure to produce high level, competitive research with far fewer resources than institutes abroad. If anything, this forces us to be innovative and collaborate and I think we are slowly eroding any stereotypes that still exist. It was really encouraging to travel and see that our research is on par with what’s out there internationally (My oral presentation was nominated for an award at the Eurotox2016 conference in Spain). I believe we have great potential for growth and are fertile ground for such. In my opinion the key would be to engage more youth in STEM, dismantle preconceived ideas about the sector (e.g too difficult, just for academics, western ideology, “out of reach” – all of which are simply not true as scientific concepts underlie all our day to day lives), make it more relatable to more groups in our country and provide better support structures for youth entering STEM/STEM training and early STEM careers.

7. Have there been any milestone moments or eureka moments in your career?

I don’t think I’ve had that one defining moment many people describe. I’d say my honours year was a pivotal one for me. I’d always thought I’d go straight into Public Health after honours but instead ended up doing my PhD. At the time my project was based in drug discovery and I really enjoyed the novelty and creativity in building on and executing my project from start to finish. My supervisors encouraged this and progressive thinking. It was my first proper experience of research and had a lasting impact on my outlook.

8. How do you maintain a work-life balance?

This has taken some time to learn but I’ve realised a better work life balance leads to better work and wellbeing in the long run. For me this means prioritizing productivity pillars in my life (sleep, exercise, fresh food). I know this sounds elementary but when working under deadlines and time dependent experiments these can easily run away from you. Then creating time for the things I enjoy – time with friends, family, travel, trying new restaurants, going to the beach (Durban beach is one of my favourite places in the world and wonderful to destress), live music or theatre performances. I think it’s important to have that balance between work and play – even if it’s something short, like a coffee date or beach walk I try to incorporate at least one per week.

9. Who is your role model? Who inspires you?

Ms Jurie Thavar – currently works for the Department of Public Works Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) but gives freely of her spare time to community initiatives and helping others.

Public figures: Thuli Madonsela and Caster Semenya – for their principles, resilience and commitment to excellence.

10. Where can more information or insight into your work be found?

Researchgate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Yashodani_Pillay

Twitter Handle: @Yash_P

Yashodani Pillay interviewed by Dhruti Dheda

Dhruti Dheda is a Chemical Engineer with a strong interest in media and communication. She is the editor of the Engineers without Borders South Africa Newsletter and the Community Manager – South Africa and Regional Outreach for Geeky Girl Reality. If you wish to collaborate or network, contact her at dhruti@geekyreality.com or find her on twitter @dhrutidd