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Sandra Boitumelo Phoma

Microbial Ecologist, PhD (biotechnology) candidate Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics (CMEG), University of Pretoria

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This career has exposed me to places I never thought I would explore.

What do you do?

By general definition, a microbial ecologist is a scientist who studies the interaction among microorganisms (all organisms that cannot be seen with a naked eye) and the biogeochemical processes they perform in any environment. This study area is multidisciplinary. For instance, one needs to have an understanding of microbiology, biochemistry, ecology and, in my case oceanography. 

My work is specifically based on determining ‘who’ lives in the ocean, ‘what’ they are doing and ‘how’ they contribute to enabling the ocean to sustain marine life and mitigate climate change processes. This work is crucial as microbes are abundant throughout the ocean depth and in the seafloor. They are also the base of the ocean food web and capable of biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen, iron, phosphorus and others. By combining oceanographic variables (e.g. effect of ocean currents and nutrient concentrations) with sequencing data, we are able to infer important functional processes and the environmental factors affecting microbial communities and ecosystem function. This snapshot has provided insight into microbial community diversity and functionality for ongoing monitoring of the Southern Ocean, an area subject to significant environmental change due to climate change.

Why did you choose this field?

As cliché as it is, this field chose me. I was approached by my current supervisor, Dr. T. Makhalanyane for an experience I had never imagined was possible for me. I followed my curiosity and have been amazed by how complex and ground-breaking this field is. This has been a running theme in my life. I have always found myself in areas of opportunity.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

Traveling the world is a perk I didn’t know was part of being a scientist. Like any child, I dreamt of exploring the world, making new friends and learning new skills. This career has exposed me to places I never thought I would explore. For instance, I presented my work to over 500 people at a prestigious conference in Montreal, Canada, and spent over a month on a ship sampling the Southern Ocean in the same year.

Why do you love working in STEM?

Every day in STEM is never the same. There are so many opportunities to learn and expand your skills. I appreciate this community, as we truly do support each other. I get to work with top experts in oceanography, bioinformatics and biochemistry, and this has enabled me to obtain opportunities in either fields.

Best advice for next generation?

I believe that girls don’t need to be compelled to join STEM, however we need to create platforms that will support girls who are interested in STEM. In my experience, my parents were my biggest supporters in my formative years. They made sure I followed through every ambitious dream I had. I may not be a successful cello player and painter now, however my love for science stuck. I have committed to do outreach programmes to disseminate my work and encourage, particularly black girls, that anything they aspire to be, can be possible. Representation, enabling children to see someone who looks like them, is one of the biggest life-changing thing every woman in STEM can do to impact a girl’s outlook on life.

Inspo quote / fun fact

I adore anything that Beyoncé and Rihanna do. They ‘give me life’.