Monthly Profiles

Fiona Kebirungi Baine

December 2013 | PhD student in Human Genetics

Fiona Kebirungi BaineMy name is Fiona Kebirungi Baine. I grew up in Uganda in a family of seven and moved to Cape Town to go to university. I always had a keen interest in science and there were many more options for study at the University of Cape Town. I completed my BSc in Genetics, with Economics as my second specialty. Thereafter, I joined the Division of Human Genetics in the Faculty of Health Sciences and found my passion doing research on inherited diseases that affect not just individuals but families and societies. In 2011, I enrolled for a PhD in Human Genetics and I am hoping to complete that study in the next year or so.

1) Briefly describe what your study involves.
The focus of my study is a neurodegenerative condition known as Huntington disease (HD). There is no cure for this disease and even though we have known what causes it for many years, there is still much to understand. My particular study is investigating the differences in the HD gene between the different population groups in South Africa, with the aim of developing a genetic therapy that can target the disease-causing mutation in patients.

2) What inspired you to enrol for this course?
When I joined the Division of Human Genetics, I discovered a field that I am really passionate and excited about. The research that is carried out focuses on the way inherited diseases affect individuals and families. With my supervisor’s encouragement, I have had many opportunities to interact with patients and their families and this has been truly inspirational. In South Africa (and Africa) where we have major problems with infectious disease, inherited conditions tend not to get much attention. The idea that the research I do can make a difference and provide hope is what it’s about.

3) What would a typical week of your studies entail?
I am not sure that anything can be described as ‘typical’ when you work in a research environment. From one week to the next, things are constantly changing. I may be running an experiment in the lab OR trying to get another experiment to work (which sometimes takes weeks!) OR teaching junior students OR doing background reading in order to plan what would be the best strategy for my work. I am also a member of the Huntington’s Association of South Africa (HASA) which gives me regular opportunities to interact with and be motivated by families with HD. There is always a lot going on!

4) Can you describe the most exciting part of your studies?
The most exciting part of my studies I think is when a particular experiment that I have been struggling with finally comes together. That gives such a feeling of accomplishment that is only experienced when you have worked long and hard at something. Also very exciting are unexpected results that need to be discussed and interpreted.

5) Where did you hear about your study program?
As an undergraduate student, I attended the open day held by the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences since I wanted to be involved in a medical aspect of science. I met some people that were working on/studying human genetics and found the projects exciting, particularly the translational aspect of this research.

6) What are some of the challenges you have experienced?
I think one of the biggest challenges has been the lack of funding for me as an international student. On occasion, I have also been challenged by difficult personalities and I have had to learn how to work with every kind of person in a professional and positive manner.

7) What are some of the highlights of your study program i.e. your achievements?
I have been fortunate to share several graduation ceremonies with my family, whose pride and happiness always makes it such a special occasion. I have also been fortunate to spend some time overseas, as my PhD is a collaborative project. This has given me important exposure to how things operate in different environments and enabled me to work with and make friends with people from around the world. By far the biggest highlight to date has been my recent selection as a fellow of the For Women in Science program (Sub-Saharan Africa) sponsored by L’Oreal and UNESCO. Apart from the award which makes it possible for me to complete my PhD, I now belong to a network of female scientists from all over the world, and that mentorship and inspiration from fellow women is invaluable.

8) What are some of the skills you have acquired during your studies?
The most important skills I have developed are patience, perseverance and discipline. Scientific research can involve long hours of hard work and commitment is key to achieve the desired results. I have also learned to manage my time, set goals and prioritise those goals. It is easier to succeed at anything if you have a plan.

9) What advice would you give girls who are considering a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematic (STEM)?
If you enjoy science and/or mathematics, work hard at it and don’t be afraid to do more. As a child I enjoyed my science classes and I later discovered that there are so many different options available. Talk to people and find mentors to help you along the way. It is also important to love what you do because sometimes the going is tough but if you truly love it then you can do ANYTHING that you set your mind to.