Hey young scientist, why don’t you make the vaccine?

I was on a phone call the other day and my aunt jokingly asked me the question – “why don’t you and your colleagues there in pharmacology find the cure to this COVID-19 pandemic?” Well, I giggled a little, but her question was justified to an extent. The field of pharmacology is involved in the process of developing new drugs.  Pharmacology is a branch of medicine that focuses on studying the uses, effects, and mechanisms of action of drugs. The field focuses on observing the relationship between complex biological systems and chemical compounds that affect them. Often confused with pharmacy, a field that focuses on the preparation and dispensing of medication, pharmacology focusses on studying abnormalities that occur in various diseases and investigating drugs that can potentially overcome such aberrations.

The development of drugs is a costly and time-consuming process. It takes approximately 12-15 years of research and can cost as much as R40 billion Rand for a single drug to reach the point where it is available on the market (shown in the figure below). In pharmacology, there are three broad branches of research involved in the research and development of drugs: basic research, clinical research and regulatory pharmacology.

 Figure 1: Overview of the drug development process.

In basic research, a large number of chemical compounds are tested in the lab to elucidate their potential efficacy in targeting some aspects associated with the disease in question. Such experiments involve testing compounds on cells isolated from humans and grown under sterile conditions (cell culture). In cell culture, it is very important that the experiments are done in a way that provides reliable clues of results to be obtained when human or animal experiments done. My PhD is focused on developing advanced cell culture models that allow for better predictions of such results. Below is a 3-minute video explaining how we exactly intend to do that.

When satisfactory results are obtained from cell cultures, the efficacy of drugs is then investigated on animal models (rats, mice, pigs, horses, fish, and many others). All experiments are conducted in accordance with strict ethical guidelines, and when efficacy and lack of toxicity is inferred from these experiments, clinical studies are then conducted.

Clinical research involves the investigation of the efficacy and safety of drugs in human beings. In these investigations, people voluntarily enrol in clinical trials, which consist of various phases. Although many drugs show remarkable potential in basic research, many drugs are eliminated in clinical trials due to harmful effects and/or lack of efficacy. This difference in the results obtained in basic research and clinical studies can be attributed to the obvious difference between animals and human beings.

When clinical data has been completed, it is compiled and sent to regulatory bodies for thorough review and approval before a drug is available on the market. Various regulatory authorities are responsible for ensuring that all guidelines were followed when developing drugs. Such regulations are carried out by regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration in America and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority here in South Africa. After it has been proven that all regulatory requirements are met, the drug is finally approved to be available in the market, and you can finally see it in your local pharmacy or hospital.

You may be wondering…. if it takes so long to develop a single drug, how did we manage to have the COVID-19 vaccine in such a short space of time. Well, in respect to basic pharmacological research, similar viruses to the one that caused the pandemic have been studied for a long time, hence it was relatively easy to figure out a vaccine approach to the new coronavirus. Secondly, in some diseases, it takes a long time to recruit participants into a clinical trial. With COVID-19 clinical studies, it was quick to recruit patients, due to the existence of a pandemic, which mean a large number of people were readily available to participate in the studies. Additionally, funds were made available by governments and various to assist in conducting these trials. Lastly, regulatory approval application for COVID-19 based studies had to be prioritized, and this shortened the usually long times as well. Thankfully, we finally have many vaccines against this devastating pandemic.

So, going back to my aunt’s question, it is a big challenge for myself as a PhD student to create a vaccine that can be readily taken by people, given the rigorous process and costs that go into drug development. However, as different researchers across the world, we individually make our contributions to the field of drug development, and these concerted contributions eventually culminate in real-life health solutions.

Presenting Google Earth Engine at the UCL-Wits climate workshop

I was asked by my supervisor Prof. Jen Fitchett to present at the University College London (UCL)- University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) climate workshop during May 2021. I was excited because she had planned for me to demonstrate to a live audience how Google Earth Engine (GEE) can be used to collect climate data remotely.

GEE is a platform that I really enjoy working with and in my opinion, it is the future of remote sensing. During the early stages of my PhD, I had the quite frightening realisation that I had very little data to work with as a result of travel restrictions caused by the global pandemic.  My project revolves around a large peatland deposit in the Angolan Highlands. This would ordinarily have involved going to Angola and collecting samples over several weeks of fieldwork, none of which were possible. I started to investigate whether I could visit my study area virtually, using remote sensing. After watching hours of YouTube tutorials, I finally got a grip of how GEE works. The platform has allowed me to collect large quantities of spatial data about my field site, all from the comfort of my home, pushing my PhD progress forward.

I have repeatedly presented on the extensive datasets that GEE has to offer to both of my supervisors. I often planned a meeting of 20 minutes that would frequently last over an hour, simply because we were all intrigued by the extensive data catalogue. I wanted the UCL-Wits workshop presentation to be no different, and Prof. Fitchett encouraged me to keep the same ‘show and tell’ format when presenting. The GEE platform really sparks discussion and places thinking caps firmly on heads.

If I am totally honest, I was not nervous to present, even with the knowledge of having to present to highly acclaimed researchers at UCL and other international institutions. I think this was because I had the experience of live demonstrations and I knew that what I would share would be new and valuable to almost all the audience. It also made me comfortable knowing that Prof. Fitchett would be there if anything went totally wrong.

I did, however, perform a quick Google search on what makes a good presentation beforehand. One of the most striking points from this search for me personally was that it is the presenter that makes the presentation worth watching. I knew I had to bring the energy and put a big smile on my face, especially at the start to draw attention.  When presenting online, you have no real social cues to go by, no eye contact or body language, so a lot of the suggestions of what makes a good presentation do not apply.  

If I look back at the presentation itself, I encouraged the live audience to interact with me as much as possible, far from a lecture-type presentation, and it was a great success. In hindsight, I probably should have moved through the datasets a bit quicker as I did not get to show nearly as much as I wanted to. The positive side to this was that some members of the audience had the opportunity to see their field site for the first time on GEE. My plan was to showcase the extraordinary capabilities of the platform in the hope that other researchers and students may use GEE in their own projects, especially now when fieldwork is logistically impossible.

After the presentation, I received communication from both Dr. Sarah Roffe and Dr. Adriaan van der Walt, two former PhD students of Prof. Fitchett, both asking me if I would like to do the same presentation at The Society of South African Geographers (SSAG) Students and Young Professionals (SnP) group workshop. Hopefully, these workshops could be the start of something that I could take forward in a teaching and learning setting in future. I would love the opportunity to teach GEE post PhD at a university or technical institution.

Three presentation lessons learnt:

  1. What you say is more important than the written text in the presentation.
  2. You need to bring the positive energy, not the audience. If you think your presentation is boring, the audience will think so too, so make it interesting and worthwhile for the them.
  3. When presenting online, technical difficulties are inevitable, just deal with them as best you can and do not let them distract you.