Addressing global challenges through a love of structural biology – my story as a GCRF START early career scientist

“Over the past two years, being involved in the GCRF START grant has allowed me to mature and to become much more independent as a scientist.”  

Dr Camien Tolmie, University of the Free State, South Africa 

The molecular workings of the natural world have always interested me, especially how we can use these processes to sustainably improve human health and agriculture. My name is Carmien Tolmie and I grew up in the small city of Bloemfontein, in the Free State province of South Africa. From a young age, I enjoyed maths, science and languages, and I participated in various extracurricular academic activities in STEM. As a result, I decided at an early age to pursue a career in science, starting with a BSc degree in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of Stellenbosch, and returning to Bloemfontein for my postgraduate studies (BSc Honours degree, MSc and finally PhD) at the University of the Free State (UFS), where I chose Biochemistry as my discipline. 

Dr Carmien Tolmie, GCRF START Postgraduate Research Assistant at the University of the Free State, South Africa. Photo credit: Sean Dillow. ©Diamond Light Source 

Structural Biology is an incredibly powerful and multi-functional field with various applications in human health, agriculture and sustainable ‘green’ chemistry (environmentally friendly chemistry). Passionate about addressing the challenges I see in Africa, I was motivated to undertake my PhD with Prof. Dirk Opperman who is a GCRF START Co-Investigator (Co-I) in UFS’s Biocatalysis and Structural Biology research group, working on enzymes (proteins that act as biological catalysts) from Aspergillus flavus. The Aspergillus flavus fungus grows on agricultural crops, produces cancer-causing compounds and can also cause infectious fungal disease. Studying the atomic structures of proteins from fungi like the Aspergillus flavus reveals a wealth of information, such as how the three-dimensional structure looks and changes during the chemical reactions it catalyses, the possible mechanism of how the protein works, and how it binds to small molecules. If the protein is a drug target, the structure can be used in Structure-Based Drug Discovery to develop new medications, ‘green’ pesticides for agriculture, and other applications.  

Passing on the love of learning to other young scientists 

I love learning and discovering new things, working in the lab, as well as passing on the knowledge to others. Therefore, I decided to build a career in academia with a focus on Structural Biology. I have recently been appointed as a full-time academic in UFS’s Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology (January 2020) where I have a joint research and teaching position as Lecturer in Biochemistry.  In my new fungal drug discovery projects, which I have just started (delayed because of Covid19 lockdown), I am the main Principal Investigator (PI) in collaboration with Prof. Opperman and Prof. Martie Smit. 

Dr Carmien Tolmie using a Douglas Oryx Nano crystallisation robot to set up protein crystallisation trials at the University of the Free State’s Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology. Photo credit: Rodolpho do Aido Machado. ©Diamond Light Source 

My new research projects will look specifically at developing inhibitor compounds against fungal metabolic targets with the aim of discovering new antifungal compounds.  Existing anti-fungal medication and pesticides have been so widely used that fungi have evolved and developed ways to combat the anti-fungals, thereby becoming drug resistant. Our research may help in the future to develop sustainable solutions through novel antifungal drugs to improve the health, wellbeing and prognosis of people who suffer from infectious fungal disease, particularly immune-compromised patients, where fungal infections can cause serious health complications and can be life threatening.  

To conduct the research, I will use the structure-based drug discovery method of X-ray crystallographic fragment screening at the UK’s national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source (Diamond). This method uses protein crystals of the target enzyme to identify small molecule fragments that bind to the enzyme. These fragments are then elaborated into larger molecules with higher potency, which will hopefully not only inhibit the specific enzyme, but also the growth of pathogenic fungi. I was introduced to the concept and power of fragment screening techniques during GCRF START meetings and learnt more about the experimental workflow of XChem and the I-04 beamline during my research visit to Diamond Light Source in the UK last year, which inspired me to embark on XChem projects for antifungal drug discovery.  

The UK’s national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source Ltd, on the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire, UK. ©Diamond Light Source 

Investing in African Early Career networks through GCRF START grant 

“Carmien is not only passionate about Structural Biology, but also teaching. She has been a vital part of START, helping and teaching the postgraduate students not just in our lab, but also reached out and helped other GCRF START groups in South Africa.”

 Prof. Dirk Opperman, University of the Free State 

Being involved in the START grant has made a very concrete contribution to my career as a young scientist. At the beginning of the START project, I was a PhD student with Prof. Opperman. The START grant has contributed to the running cost of our laboratory, funded my postdoctoral salary for 2019, as well as my travel cost of attending a CCP4 workshop in Brazil (2018), the Biophysics and Structural Biology at Synchrotrons workshop, and various START meetings. The grant also enabled and funded my research exchange to the UK last year (2019). Through START, we have met numerous top-notch scientists that can advise us on our experiments. We have START meetings for early career scientists, both in the Structural Biology and Energy Materials strands of the START project. We routinely collect data with other members of the South African Structural Biology Consortium at Diamond (various universities and START collaborating laboratories), albeit through remote access –  a process that was greatly improved by a Data Collection Workshop run by Diamond’s beamline scientists in Pretoria last year, and which enhanced our data collection skills and deepened our relations within the network established by START.  

Interestingly, this international collaboration has been instrumental in establishing a network of early-career structural biologists in South Africa, including postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Getting to know peers who are working in Structural Biology, and who are using the same techniques as I am, and who have similar research interests has provided a feeling of connectedness. These projects are often very demanding and having the support and motivation of a friend who has encountered similar setbacks (or being that friend to someone else) can really help one endure in difficult times. My hope is that this network will be the basis for many future collaborations.  

Dr Carmien Tolmie using a Rigaku X-ray diffractometer to determine diffraction data of a protein crystal at the University of the Free State’s Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology. Photo credit: Rodolpho do Aido Machado. ©Diamond Light Source 

Exposure to international research collaborations and facilities  

GCRF START has exposed me to many esteemed international scientists and facilities. The START events have introduced me to scientists at Diamond who are very supportive and who have invested in both the START project and the development of the people involved in the project, such as START Co-I, Prof. Frank von Delft, who has research groups at both Diamond and the Structural Genomics Consortium at the University of Oxford. I was hosted by the Structural Genomics Consortium for a two-month research exchange last year to develop new experimental skills and this kind of exposure has greatly improved my skills and the way I think about my research. 

At the time of writing, I am currently involved in organising a crystallographic data processing workshop in South Africa – the first of its kind to be held on the continent – with START and CCP4. The workshop was supposed to be in April of this year (2020) but had to be postponed because of the Covid19 pandemic. I am one of the main local organisers, and this has given me the opportunity to improve both my grant-writing skills and organisational skills. In addition to funding by CCP4 and START, we have secured funding from the International Union for Crystallography, the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics, the National Research Foundation of South Africa, and the University of Cape Town. 

Gaining the competitive edge! 

Over the past two years, being involved in the grant has allowed me to mature and to become much more independent as a scientist.  My appointment as a Lecturer in Biochemistry means starting with my own, independent research projects in Structure-Based Drug Discovery, which is very exciting, and scary at the same time! I will be responsible for the second-year undergraduate Biochemistry module – Enzymology and introduction to metabolism.  Although this is a difficult year to start teaching a module, I have a great support system at the department. I truly believe that the experience and exposure of START gave me a competitive edge in being selected for the position, and I am very grateful for this opportunity.  

“The opportunities that were afforded to Carmien through the GCRF START grant enabled her to transition to academia. For the momentum we have gained through the grant to continue, we must transition our START Post Graduate Research Assistants into permanent academic positions. This allows us to retain the ‘critical mass’ required for structural biology to be successful in South Africa.”  

Prof. Dirk Opperman, University of the Free State, South Africa 

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I would firstly like to thank Dirk for the motivation, support and academic mentoring throughout the years; I would not have been the researcher I am today without him. I would like to thank Prof. Trevor Sewell (Director of the Aaron Klug Centre for Imaging and Analysis, University of Cape Town), Dr Ruslan Nukri Sanishvili (formerly of Argonne National Laboratory, Chicago, USA), Dr Gwyndaf Evans (Deputy Director Life Science, Diamond Light Source), Dr Dave Hall (MX Group leader, Diamond Light Source), and the CCP4 staff for their help in organising the CCP4 workshop. I would also like to thank Prof. Frank von Delft (Diamond Light Source, University of Oxford) and Dr Nicola Burgess-Brown (University of Oxford) for hosting me in their research groups. Finally, I would like to thank the University of the Free State and especially Prof. Martie Smit (HOD, Dept. of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology) for giving me the opportunity to further my academic career.  

Dr Carmien Tolmie, GCRF START Postgraduate Research Assistant at the Department of Microbial,
Biochemical and Food Biotechnology, University of the Free State, South Africa. ©Diamond Light Source 

Tolmie C, Do Aido Machado R, Ferroni FM, Smit MS and DJ Opperman (2020). Natural variation in the ‘control loop’ of BVMOAFL210 and its influence on regioselectivity and sulfoxidation. Catalysts 10(3): 339. doi: 10.3390/catal10030339 (Impact factor 3.444): 

Carmien’s profile on Research Gate Profile