South Africa: Postdoctoral Fellow Shares Research Highs and Lows Under Lockdown

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Who can forget that first lockdown announcement in March 2020? For many, it meant the dining room would be converted into an office space; for others (depending on the sector), the shutdown meant little to no work at all. But for a select few, working behind the scenes to understand SARS-CoV-2, its transmissibility and its effects on the immune system, working from home was not an option. Their research into the virus during a time when very little was known about it was absolutely crucial.

And in light of this, the University of Cape Town (UCT) opened some of its laboratories to ensure scientists could continue this essential work. Dr Steven Makatsa, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Division of Medical Virology in the Department of Pathology in UCT's Faculty of Health Sciences, was one of a handful of researchers in the labs at the time.

Dr Makatsa shared his experience with UCT News.

Research focus area

Makatsa's research focused on developing an antibody assay - a biochemical test that measures the presence or concentration of antibodies in a patient's blood, recognises the virus and signals that an infection has occurred and an immune response has formed.

The research involved collecting COVID-19 samples from infected volunteers in Cape Town and Johannesburg, recruited by the National Health Laboratory Service. Once scientists received participants' samples, they measured their antibody responses to the virus.

"It has always been my dream to contribute significantly to improving global health."

To conduct this important work, Makatsa said, scientists used plant-derived recombinant viral proteins, because they are cost-effective and are considered important tools in under-resourced settings. The research findings were presented in a research paper last year.

A significant contribution

For Makatsa, being part of a team responsible for providing an essential service during a pandemic - a challenging and uncertain time - was a dream come true.

"It has always been my dream to contribute significantly to improving global health. Being on the ground doing this work during those early days felt like I was living that dream - and that was so fulfilling," he said.

He admitted that it wasn't always easy, especially since only a handful of his colleagues had received essential-service permits and were able to work with him in the lab. The rest, he explained, worked from home and provided much-needed support from their home offices. It was during this time that Makatsa and his colleagues learned to appreciate technology, which he said played a fundamental role in ensuring messages were communicated succinctly.

"Technology was our friend. We relied a lot on Zoom calls, emails and even WhatsApp. We had no choice, and really had to adapt fast."

Time was of the essence

According to Makatsa, one of the biggest challenges was the time constraint they were under; they had to produce important results under tough circumstances - and in record time.

"We needed to generate the data, write the paper and send it for review within a very short space of time. It's very important to note that this wasn't only physically and mentally taxing, but emotionally taxing as well," he said.

"Even though we had to give our best work, the pandemic was putting strain on our personal lives too. I lost two loved ones as a result of COVID-19."

He said that researchers developed a close community of care in the labs, supported one another on all levels, and "checked up" on one another regularly. Because work was conducted under stressful circumstances, it was always cross-checked - not because there was a lack of trust, but because colleagues' well-being was central to the research project.

Lessons learned

Makatsa said he learned to appreciate the insight of his supervisor, Associate Professor Wendy Burgers. She took time to understand everyone's strengths, he said, and assigned roles and responsibilities to researchers to ensure "effective and expeditious outcomes".

But the most important lesson he learned was the importance of financial savings. "We never know what can happen, so it's very important to save money," he said.

"We had so much to do, and so little time."

More than that, he said, he also learned the true value of time, and of using it wisely.

"We had so much to do, and so little time. I think my colleagues would agree - this statement encompasses our stresses. We always wanted to do more, and sometimes we needed to do more. But there simply were not enough hours in the day to accomplish all our tasks," Makatsa said.

A delayed trip

As a result of lockdown, Makatsa was forced to put his academic plans on the back burner. Late in 2019 he had accepted a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Washington in Seattle in the United States. But when lockdown was initiated, his plans came to a grinding halt.

"Before lockdown, I spent two months with my family in Bloemfontein without an income, and this was the most stressful time. I was very excited when my supervisor contacted me to let me know that there was a postdoc position available that required research into COVID-19," he said.

"I'm grateful for the challenges and the opportunities 2020 brought."

"I had no idea how long the hard lockdown would last, and how long travel bans would be in place, and therefore I was grateful when Wendy [Burgers] offered me this opportunity. I accepted it with both hands."

Makatsa arrived in Washington in October 2020 to begin his postdoctoral research fellowship. His work forms part of a project called Immune Mechanisms of Protection Against Mycobacterium tuberculosis Centres (IMPAc-TB). The project aims to identify mechanisms of protection against mycobacterium TB in various animal and human hosts, to aid the development of interventions for effective TB control globally. This work is part of a global collaboration between scientists from the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (SATVI) at UCT, Stellenbosch University, Imperial College London and Harvard University.

"It's been quite a journey to get to this point. But nothing comes without a sacrifice, and I'm grateful for the challenges and the opportunities 2020 brought. I'm also grateful to commence this exciting step in my career as a researcher - albeit a bit later than initially expected," Makatsa said.

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