Meet Dr Nehemiah Latolla – 2022 FameLab Winner!

Interview with Dr. Nehemiah Latolla, FameLab SA 2022 winner, October 2022

Jive Media Africa: Please tell us a little about yourself.

Dr. Nehemiah Latolla: I was born in Leratong Hospital in Johannesburg before my parents started missionary work in the Eastern Cape Province. Growing up in a home of missionaries, my parents always reminded us of the importance of caring for and helping others. This would become my goal in life, to use education to better the lives of others around me.

I was attracted to Organic Chemistry in high school as the biological route (as a medical practitioner) did not agree with my squeamishness around blood. It offered the world of medicine through chemistry which I would, later on, make a home. I am a firm believer in the African proverb, “Those that are in the room, are meant to be there” and this I connected to my journey – where you are meant to be, life will lead you.

In my first Organic Chemistry lecture I met my supervisor, who would later introduce me to the world of medicinal chemistry through the indigenously use of plants. This field of research resonated with me on both an academic and personal level, offering the opportunity to help others through familiar stories shared by my grandparents. But this change-making project does not stop at a purely scientific level, I also use the scientific method to create fashion and poetry to change the lives of others, using critical narratives to explore questions about the body, sexuality, and the curriculum. This I’ve been able to do as a former chair of the university poetry society (where I ran “Poetry as healing” workshops with community members), at various exhibitions, publications and events, and as a former assistant exhibition manager at the Archives and Exhibition Centre at the Nelson Mandela University. I think of all this work that describes who I am as the culmination of the different streams at my disposal to care for and help others. All this to, in the words of my institution’s namesake, “Change the world”.

JMA: How did you find out about FameLab and why did you get involved?

NL: I became involved in FameLab for various reasons. Former FameLab alums from my institution (Dr Pulleng  Moleko-Boyce and Mr Sendibitiyosi Gandidzanwa) have shared the amazing opportunities FameLab offers and upon completing my thesis I saw the need to revisit how I communicate my science. I also strongly feel that as tax-funded researchers we owe it to the tax-payer to communicate our science in an unambiguous way. COVID-19 showed us how important it is for scientists (not politicians) to come forth and address the public on the sciences involved in any particular case. Most importantly my research is concerned with the chemistry of medicinal plant use and I see FameLab as paramount in helping develop myself to effectively communicate with the communities I work with. Finally, to make connections with other science communicators and build community.

JMA: Why is it important for you to engage with people outside of your research area?

NL: It’s important to engage people outside of my research area as this provides new and diverse insights into the research. Sometimes we are too stuck in our own silos to see certain things that are easily discernable by fresh eyes.

JMA: Tell us about your research and what value it has in the world? What made you choose this specific research area?

NL: My research area is in phytochemistry, which is the study of the chemistry of plants. In my case, those plants used locally in the treatment of diabetes. This chemistry is compounds or substances produced by living organisms found in nature and is termed Natural Products (NP). In the 90s approximately 80% of drugs were NP or derived from NP. Thus, we are interested in the study of these medicinal plants towards new, safe, and cost-effective drugs. Similarly to other scientific research, the study of NP is not unique to South Africa but forms part of global endeavours towards drug discovery. What makes this undertaking so special here is our regional and indigenous knowledge systems advantages which are unique to SA. We have about 30 000 recorded plant species of which approximately 3 000 have the potential for medicinal use. However, there is a lack in the reported chemistry, safety, and efficacy of these medicinal plants. I am motivated to make a contribution to this research towards drug discovery to combat the significant healthcare crisis which is diabetes. This research responds to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for ‘Good health and well-being’ and can further contribute towards ‘No poverty’ through the potential of innovation, investment, and job creation.

JMA: Why do you think it is important to share your research on an international platform?

NL: The scientific project by its nature is a global endeavor. However, we need to share our research internationally to ensure that we are informed of new trends or discoveries to advance the research fields. It also opens up opportunities to access various infrastructures or schools of thought available that foster collaboration. Through science communication, we also have the opportunity to inform the global public about our research and what it means for them. In my research, I work with indigenously used medicinal plants which only grow in southern Africa to find solutions for diabetes which is a global challenge. This situates this research as uniquely South African and responsive to global challenges, highlighting the South African botanical gardens as sites of innovation, investment, job creation and ultimately poverty alleviation. Research worth pursuing is research worth sharing. 

JMA: What advice can you offer to young researchers?

NL: As you work towards your qualification or complete your research project three things become important: passion, perseverance, and care. Make sure that you are passionate about whatever research topic you seek to investigate, as this will make it real and tangible. Develop the ability to persevere, so that regardless of the challenges or setbacks you are able to continue to push towards your goal. Finally, have care, for the project, the people you work with and yourself, which resonates with the age-old saying, “If you love it, it will grow”. Remember research is not an activity, it becomes a life of its own and thus you need to make sure that the people around you (involved in the project or in your life) understand and support you on your journey. Failure is inevitable and necessary when you conduct research because it provides an opportunity to stop, reevaluate, learn and grow as a researcher. My father, who was a devoted Christian and Pastor (God rest his soul) taught me the most important lesson yet in my life, “The greater the challenge, the greater the reward”. This is always my mantra in research – whenever all seems lost great victory is ahead.

JMA: How do you feel about winning the FameLab SA competition and going on to participate in the international competition?

NL: I feel incredibly humbled to have reached this place in this competition. We truly had a team of great ideas and science communicators in the competition this year. I feel very honoured to be able to move forward and represent this group of excellence. However, the weight on my shoulders to move forward and represent them all is not lost on me. Thank you to the FameLab SA team, NRF SAASTA and Jive Media for their continued support throughout this process. I look forward, enthused about what the international competition holds and will give my best to showcase the richness of thought and innovation South African scientists have to offer.