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Ellen Segopa – on the road to great things

Ellen Segopa is one of those people that will quietly take over the world and make a good job of it. Like most children, Ellen dreamt far and wide about what she wanted to become and only in high school realised that science is her career home. She picked up on research as a possibility whilst working as a laboratory assistant in her third year at the University of the Free State. The rest is history. Ellen is now in the final year of her Masters Degree in Biotechnology at the Institute for Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics (IMBM) at the University of the Western Cape.

The road behind Ellen is paved with dreams, but not with gold. As the only child of a single mother, she had to be innovative, hardworking and determined to make things happen. Her mom had saved enough money to get her through her first year at the University of the Free State, but from there Ellen had to hang her own moon. When speaking about the opportunities she created she wisely says ‘I never acted smart. If I needed help, I asked for it’.

Ellen’s quest for independence is the point where her life dreams and career dreams come together. As an only child she learned the value of being comfortable with her own company and of trusting her inner voice. This ability transfers well to her chosen career path – where many hours are spent alone researching and testing.

Ellen’s current research is partially funded by the South African Department of Trade and Industry’s THRIP programme. The study is in partnership with SA Olive and the Plant Protection Division of Agricultural Research Council, Infruitec-Nietvoorbij.

Ellen’s project focuses on bio-control of olive trunk diseases. Bio-control treatment is an alternative to chemical treatment and addresses the issue of toxicity towards the environment. It uses beneficial micro-organisms to control pathogens that affect the trunks and branches of the olive trees. Ellen’s project utilises marine bacteria that have been isolated from the South African marine environment. Marine bacteria have unique chemistries that allow them to survive in extreme conditions and produce secondary metabolites, which form compounds that can kill surrounding pathogens. The research is now at the stage where the compounds are being extracted and tested against the pathogens in a laboratory environment (in vitro). Once the extracted compounds have been shown to be effective against the targeted pathogens, it will be tested on detached olive shoots in laboratory assays (in vivo), potted olive trees in a glasshouse and only then will it be considered for further testing in the field.  The ultimate goal is to develop a wound sealant to protect susceptible wounds, like annual pruning wounds, from pathogen infections. ‘I can’t wait for it to be successful! I came a long way to work on it and feel very invested in the project’, says Ellen.

Where to from here? Ellen is adamant about experiencing the research world outside of the university environment after completing her MSc degree. She wants to see how research is applied in the industry. She is toying with the idea of working on a PhD while at the same time being exposed to the industry.

This young woman who grew up in Bodibe, a small village close to Mafikeng in the North West province, carries in her something that the agricultural industry and the world need – passion and a vision of the future. She also knows that you have to be uncomfortable before becoming comfortable – you have to take certain risks to achieve something. ‘I am only the second person in my family to get a degree, and moving to a place where I only knew one person was a challenge, but it is an opportunity for me to grow’, says Ellen.

Anita Burger, Ellen’s supervisor, commented on Ellen’s work and personal development by saying that ‘Ellen accepted the opportunity to conduct her Magister study at the IMBM in March 2017.  Since then I witnessed her growing from inexperienced and very often overwhelmed by the relatively complex nature of her study, to a young researcher who is developing skills like critical and analytical thinking and using knowledge to solve problems.  In the interest of translating South Africa’s unique biological resources to economic outputs for the industrial, health and agricultural sectors, it is vital that young scientists, especially women, are encouraged and supported to pursue careers in science. I consider Ellen as the perfect role model for this purpose’.

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