Meet South African Scientist, Pelly Malebe, developing genetic markers for drought tolerance

Meet South African Scientist, Pelly Malebe, developing genetic markers for drought tolerance
6 min read

Pelly Malebe is a PhD candidate in Biotechnology at the University of Pretoria, whose current research focuses on identifying and developing genetic markers for drought tolerance and yield in crop. 

Pelly Malebe

The importance of such research is linked to her understanding that the genetic basis of drought tolerance may impact on food and job security in Africa.

Pelly Malebe

Malebe was the recipient of the Department of Science and Technology Women in Science Doctoral Fellowship in 2013 and currently has a Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products Network PhD Fellowship. In 2017, she was selected as the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) Ambassador for South Africa.

Pelly Malebe

NEF is an initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in partnership with Robert Bosch Stiftung, and a platform that connects science, society and policy in Africa and the rest of the world – with the goal to leverage science for human development globally. 

“I was born in a village in Limpopo called Maseven. There were no nursery schools at that time. I think I was a bit of a handful because my mother took me to grade 1 at the age of 4 years. When my father had an opportunity to take us to schools in town, he was told I was too young for grade 2 and I had to go back to nursery school.”

Pelly Malebe

“One of my oldest memories was me writing on the walls at my parent’s house, mimicking the teacher. Like most children, I have never really been a fan of school. But, I have always had a passion for learning and acquiring knowledge. I went on to study BSc Human Genetics at the University of Pretoria. I then completed a BSc honours degree in Biotechnology. My passion for acquiring knowledge grew, and I remained in academia until I obtained an MSc in Biotechnology. I am currently enrolled at the University of Pretoria as a PhD candidate.”

  • Tell us about the work that you do, and how you think it is/will be making an impact in the society you find yourself in.

“My research focus is on identifying and developing genetic markers for drought tolerance and yield on the tea plant. These biotechnology tools can be applied to other crop research. My interest lies in identifying ways to increase food security. The threat to food security has become a reality in South Africa as we experienced our worst drought in December 2016. Currently the Western Cape (a province within South Africa) is experiencing a water crises. I am interested in increasing the understanding of the genetic basis of drought tolerance and yield in the tea plant. Ultimately, research such as this has the potential to impact on food security, through breeding of drought-tolerant crop varieties.”

  • You were selected as the Next Einstein Forum Ambassador for South Africa. How does this make you feel? And what does this mean for you and South Africa?

“I was the Next Einstein Forum Ambassador for South Africa in 2016 and 2017. This has been both an honour and a privilege to be part of such a great initiative and to represent my country. The Next Einstein Forum is a global platform that brings Africa on to the global science and innovate stage: through its biennial NEF Global Gathering, the Next Einstein Forum is bringing the global scientific community to Africa to discuss how science, technology, engineering and mathematics can provide solutions to global challenges. I have always been and will always remain and advocate for “African solutions for African problems”. I believe that we should define what development means for us as a continent and what direction we wish to grow in. We have great untapped talent within our land. We should continue to nurture our knowledge economy.”

  • What inspired your passion for genetics and biotechnology?

“As a young girl I remember having so many questions and a few answers. I have always wanted to know why people look the way they do. Why I have my mother’s lips and father’s eyes. I remember in high-school when my biology teacher first introduced me to DNA. I found that most of the answers to my questions could be found in textbooks and on a computer screen. That is what led to my interest in genetics and biotechnology.”

  • What are some of the major developments in genetics in South Africa?

“The South African government, educational and industrial leaders are working together to build the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) talent pipeline needed to solve global problems. Success in cultivating the next generation of STEM talents depends on collaboration among many stakeholders. There is a need to train the next generation of scientists and technologists to sustain growth in emerging economies. There is also a need for businesses and the private sector to invest in STEM talent to solve complex challenges. Biotechnology is viewed as a scarce skill in South Africa.”

  • What makes you proud about your journey so far?

“I recently became a mom, July 2017. Tackling motherhood and building a career has proved itself to be the greatest and most rewarding challenge of my life. I think as a working mother you are constantly filled with guilt. If you put too much time into work, you may feel guilty that you are neglecting the young person you have brought into this world. If you invest time with your child, you may feel that you are not making the strides in your career that you would have made. I am learning each day, to live a balanced life. I am proud to say that I am now a morning person, my son has taught me to be that. I wake up to his beaming bright smile and I cease the day! I owe it to myself to fulfil all my dreams, and that includes being happy.”