So, you are doing a Ph.D in biology?

If you’re a life science Ph.D student, you’ve had this question before. Usually followed by raised eyebrows and confused looks, which signal the second question – What will you do with that? The reasons and motivations for pursuing a Ph.D depend on the individual, but let me just try to explain what a Ph.D in biology means to me.

Firstly, it would be remiss of me to not mention that currently there is no Nobel Prize in Biology! But, as an aspiring Nobel laureate, you can take solace in the fact that in recent years the Noble Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to biologist. Studying biology today has changed drastically since the days of Darwin and Mendel. The multi-disciplinary nature of modern biology is the reason why three biologists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2015 for their work on “Mechanistic studies of DNA repair”. Naturally, this caused some uproar from the Chemistry community, but the argument was laid to rest here. Now – to you, the aspiring Ph.D biology student – I say do NOT be deterred by the “haters”  🙂 . The path you have chosen has many twists and turns, but the rewards far outweigh the immediate costs.

Now, if knowing that there is a (veeeery slim) chance that a biologist could win a Nobel Prize is not motivation enough, a recent publication by by American Society of Cell Biology highlighted where recent Biology graduates are now: not even 10% of those starting their PhD end up in tenure-track faculty positions…

Despite all the challenges and frustrations experienced by Biology PhD students, I could not see myself doing something else. I have ALWAYS loved biology, and  it was the only subject that made sense to me in school. I grew up with a medical background (with my mum being a healthcare professional) and being exposed to it made me love it.  I must admit at that point I wasn’t sure what “IT” was, and I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor. . . Please reader, do not judge me too harshly for what I am about to tell you –  Upon completion of high school, I promptly began studying for my medical degree at UCT’s medical school. Those were the WORST two weeks of my life! I simply could not see myself playing the role of Dr. . . Even when my friends and I played Dr-Patient, I always preferred being the patient (I may have been influenced by the rule that patients ALWAYS got a piece a candy after the Dr’s ‘exam’). So, you see, although Biology was in my blood, medicine was not my calling. It seems that life is not without a sense of irony: although I cannot see myself being a human doctor, I see myself being a Dr of Biology 🙂

To go back to the core of this blog – Yes, I am doing a PhD in biology and unlike my friends in other fields or accounting (a career choice I can’t understand!) I’ve NEVER have a ‘bad’ day at work. Sure, my experiments have some ‘kinks’, but I don’t have a 9-5 work schedule, and I have the freedom to answer the questions that matter most to me. My work (where, remember, you spend most of your waking hours) is VERY rewarding! I ask this of my fellow PhDs: reclaim your pride and shatter the glass ceilings. That Nobel Prize in Chemistry is now attainable! There is no reason to be riddled with anxiety when asked if you do a PhD in biology. Be proud! There are bigger question to ask yourself: what legacy will you leave? What kind of mentor do you want to be? What contributions is your work making to the field of biology?

[1] American society of cell biology infograph of status of PhD (biology) holders

If I were a plant pathogen, I would want to be a Phytophthora species

In the spirit of Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17), lets talk about Ireland. In many Christian denominations of Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day is considered a feast day. However, ironically, I want to talk about the Irish potato famine.

Phytophthora infestans St Pattys


Why are there so many Irish communities around the world? Because nearly 25% of Ireland emigrated as a result of mass starvation caused by a plant disease in the mid 1800s. This disease, known as potato late blight, is caused by Phytophthora infestans.


Phytophthora is a Greek word that translates as ‘plant destroyer’ (phyto=plant, phthora=destroyer).


Phytophthora is the name of a genus or group of microorganisms that destroy plants by causing disease. Microorganisms that cause disease are referred to as plant pathogens. Pathogens in this group are responsible for many plant diseases around the world. For example, as mentioned previously, P. infestans already changed the history of the world, and is still causing issues today, even in South African potato and tomato fields.

Phytophthora species are causing many epidemics around the world. Five of the top 12 tree diseases in the UK are caused by Phytophthora species. One of these is also responsible for Sudden Oak Death in the United States—my first introduction to Phytophthora. Click here to see pictures from a recent excursion into Sudden Oak Death infected lands.


Other notable Phytophthora diseases include Jarrah dieback in Australia, Kauri dieback in New Zealand, and Daño foliar de pino in South America.

Actually, the pathogen (Phytophthora ramorum) that causes Sudden Oak Death in the USA also causes ramorum blight in the UK, where it kills Japanese larch, an important timber species. One pathogen causing two major diseases on two continents! Both countries have spent millions trying to control the disease—not even counting the costs from damages, ecological impacts and increased regulations—yet South Africa may not even be looking out for it.

One species that is affecting South Africa is Phytophthora cinnamomi. This species, dubbed as the ‘biological bulldozer‘ in Australia, threatens South African proteas, orchards, vineyards and plantations. Even though this species is known to infect more than 2500 native species in Australia, we have a poor understanding of its impacts in fynbos here of South Africa.  This is one of the justifications for Cape Citizen Science, a research project focused on Phytophthora species in the Western Cape Province. You can contribute to this research and to the understanding of the impacts of Phytophthora cinnamomi by participating as a citizen scientist.


Unfortunately, because Phytophthora species are microscopic, they are frequently (accidentally) spread around the world. I like to think we are getting better at stopping this from happening, but the reality is that more plant pathogens are introduced every year—frequently from the global trade of live plants, but also potentially from the soles of our hiking boots.


I can’t say what would happen if Phytophthora ramorum was introduced to South Africa (investigating this would be a cool research project), but after seeing the impacts of Sudden Oak Death first hand, I can say it is definitely worth watching out for. Hopefully if it is introduced, we can detected it early and eradicate it before it spreads too far to control, like it has in the UK and the USA. This is another justification for Cape Citizen Science. By reporting dying plants, you may be the first to detect a exotic and invasive Phytophthora species. The fynbos biome is immaculate because of the high amount of endemism—having many plant species that only exist here in South Africa.  Because of its incredible biodiversity, it is important to protect, and we can protect this biome by being on the look out for dying plants, reporting the ones that you come across. Cape Citizen Science is a platform for making these reports.

Even more scary than Phytophthora ramorum are the species that havn’t been discovered by science. It is estimated that between 200-500 species of Phytophthora are yet to be discovered. For example, oak trees started dying throughout California before Phytophthora ramorum was actually described and the origin of this pathogen still remains unknown. There are many Phytophthora species out there, some that may even be native to the fynbos biome. Identifying these species is another objective of Cape Citizen Science. By participating, you could be the first to collect a completely new species of Phytophthora.