The ongoing tale of finishing up my PhD: Part 2

This is an extension of my April blog contribution ‘The ongoing tale of finishing up my PhD’. Even though I found the research and write-up of my PhD thesis enjoyable and its challenges eventually vitalising, the experience was overshadowed by the arduous months of waiting for my results. Thus, my degree  turned into something of a time-distorting rabbit hole, much like the one I liken Tinder encounters to in my thesis.

One year after my initial PhD submission, following re-submitting my substantially revised thesis in March this year, I finally received my results yesterday!

I had to force myself to slowly, word-by-word, re-read the soberly formulated outcome – just to be sure I got it right:

‘Dear Leah Junck, The Doctoral Degrees Board (DDB) has agreed that you should be awarded the PhD degree subject to addressing the required trivial/typographical (including all changes, criticisms and suggestions indicated by all three examiners) to the satisfaction of the supervisor and the DDB.’

Letting the words sink in made way for a relief that is hard to describe. An initial burst of energy released itself through my body. It clashed with accumulated tensions that have been grimly but calmly nestled into my bones over the past year. This newfound vigour made me jump up and down my living room, throwing my arms into the air as though testing their aliveness. I felt a grimace control over my face and, gratefully, let it distort its concentrated frown. I had prepared myself for bad news and, in my mind, already drawn up a ‘gracious loser speech’. All of this could now stop taking up mind-space! Opening a beer, I sat on the balcony, and let a sense of calm wash over me again, mixing with the occasional tingle of excitement as I let the long-awaited news sink in.

Unfortunately, this calm was soon compromised by an email containing the announced ‘trivial/typographical’ changes to be done. The remaining examiner, whom I thought I had eventually convinced of my academic merit, still had quite a bit to say beyond trivialness and typography. As I mentioned in my previous post, most comments from my three examiners were very insightful and made my thesis all the richer. Yet, some of these new ones felt personal, questioning my disciplinary integrity and commitment given my drawing on a variety of disciplines.

The process of substantially re-working my thesis was structured by a ‘Template for Corrections to a PhD Thesis’, which had been sent to me along with my initial examination result. In the four months that I spent on revisions, the two columns grew into a detailed 14-page document. It outlined the comments of the examiners and my responses to each of them, including how and where in the thesis they had been addressed. Now, I have the same document in front of me again and am starting the process of explaining myself in this format once more. This is fair enough – it is a PhD after all, and that’s only worth something if people can trust in the thoroughness of the examination procedure.

However, I cannot help but wonder what things would have been like had I submitted in a different system. At many other universities, a thesis defense forms part of working towards a doctorate. When I realised this was not going to be the case for me at UCT, I was glad. The idea of it seemed stressful and I would have feared for my exam anxieties to pop up again at a rather inconvenient time. Now, I look at it differently. A thesis defense could have been an opportunity to explain myself in a way that I might not be able to when limited to a form. Beyond that, I imagine actually seeing your examiners to be a different experience entirely. Without the veil of (one-sided) anonymity, there is bound to be an actual conversation, an exchange – even if this happened in times of a pandemic through a computer screen. Had this been my experience, I might have walked away from this life episode with a feeling of finalisation. As it is, I will fill out my new response form as diligently as I possibly can and send it off – knowing it will be without a response from my remaining examiner.

Then I will wait a little more – for finally being able to graduate in December 2021, 1,5 years after what I thought was ‘the’ thesis hand-in and end of this story. Perhaps, the event will give things an air of finality. Or maybe, like my PhD itself, processing its completion will simply take time rather than a final act.


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.