My Journey to becoming a START Postdoc Research Fellow – Dr Andani Mulelu’s story

As a young structural biology research scientist, Dr Andani Mulelu has already achieved what many dream of happening in a lifetime.  His journey to becoming a GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is one to inspire a new generation of African scientists, showing how UK and Africa can work together to support talented individuals and excellent research with impact. Here is Dr Mulelu’s story in his own words.

Dr Andani Mulelu at the University of Cape Town.
Photo Credit: Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source

Dr Andani’s Mulelu’s story

I was born in the Limpopo region of South Africa to parents who had a rural upbringing under apartheid. One of four children, I soon benefited from a multitude of sacrifices made by my parents to send me to school to get a good education. My parents borrowed heavily to educate us, going without even the basics sometimes so that we might gain from every cent they made.

By the time I went to school, Apartheid had fallen, and I was sent to Zimbabwe to get an education at a boarding high school. Zimbabwe’s education was second to none in Africa and my father, who wasn’t able to pursue a civil engineering career under Apartheid restrictions, gave me the opportunities he and my mother never had.

I had a strong interest in science from an early age – at some point in high school one of my Biology teachers told us about biochemistry and I was instantly hooked! I had great teachers who motivated me and due to changing schools and countries a number of times (South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe), I learnt to study by myself to adapt to different curricula which set a pattern that has benefitted me to this day.  Yet school in a country rocked by economic hardship was not plain sailing. By the time my O-Levels were almost complete, I had to queue for hours to buy food because of shortages at school.

After my A-Levels, my parents had to fund my undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town, while funding school for my siblings. A creative woman, my mother was not shy of trying new income sources and started a small business selling ‘mopane worms’, a nutritious caterpillar considered a delicacy in Southern Africa. Soon she was earning the same as my father, an engineer!

In terms of my studies, during my honours year I became fascinated by the structure of helical nitrilases, especially those that detoxified cyanide which has all sorts of potential such as cleaning up pollution from mining, and other worthy applications. Nitrilases are helical enzymes that convert nitriles to acids and/or amides (amides are organic compounds containing nitrogen).

I joined Professor Trevor Sewell’s group at UCT for my Master’s degree and my PhD and worked with an international team of scientists located in the United States, UK and Germany. This provided access to ever-improving electron microscopes to visualise our nitrilases at higher and higher resolutions.

Dr Andani Mulelu with scientists (from left to right) Priscillia Masamba,
Dr Jeremy Woodward, Melissa Marx, Philip Venter, Dr Lizelle Lubbe and
Professor Trevor Sewell at the University of Cape Town.
Photo Credit: Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source

The next big milestones took place after my PhD.  I was appointed a START Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the prestigious Global Challenges Research Funded programme at the University of Cape Town’s Division of Medical Biochemistry and Structural Biology (Faculty of Health Sciences). Then, working with Dr Jeremy Woodward and Angela M. Kirykowicz, we were able to visualise the structure of an intact helical filament at close-to-atomic resolution for the first time – the first high resolution visualisation of a Cryo-EM protein structure ever to be produced in Africa!

Dr Mulelu and Dr Woodward next to UCT’s cryo-electron microscope.
Photo Credit: Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source

The findings were published on the 17 July 2019 in Nature Communications Biology 2:260 (2019) and enabled me to finally realise my dream of visualising a nitrilase at atomic resolution and to solve the mystery of substrate selectivity in these enzymes. These results were made possible through our collaboration through GCRF START, access to the state-of-the-art eBIC facilities and expertise at the UK’s world-class synchrotron light source, Diamond.

In years to come, we hope these findings can be used to address some of the main challenges for humanity in terms of health and the environment – solutions which could contribute to meeting the key UN’s Sustainable Development goals through new ways of designing and manufacturing medicines and ‘green’ biotechnology solutions for agriculture and waste treatment here in Africa.

In addition to our successful results, I landed a job as a Research Scientist at H3D Drug Discovery and Development Centre at UCT! H3D is the first integrated drug discovery and development centre on the African continent and I am responsible for providing scientific and technical support in protein expression and purification, structural biology and running biochemical assays to increase the capacity of H3D’s Malaria and Tuberculosis (TB) target based drug discovery programs.

I can truly say that the START program has given me invaluable training and experience in structural biology, particularly in Cryo-Electron microscopy.  Although I am no longer a research scientist with START, working at H3D also brings new opportunities of continued collaboration with START.

On a personal level, the impact on my family and my future ambitions is huge. My parents are very proud of my achievements, and I thank them from my heart for their support. One of my siblings is also pursuing a PhD, and another is similarly inspired to help solve health challenges working for an NGO specialising in water supply and sanitation for disadvantaged schools.

Finally, I am financially independent! I can happily give back to support my deserving parents, and I am much closer to my long-held dream of being a world-class scientist!

Dr Mulelu visiting the UK’s Diamond Light Source synchrotron.
Photo Credit: Dr Mulelu

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