Dr Sahejna Bantho is embarking on a career in medicinal plant research on a strong footing after having her master’s degree upgraded to a PhD, achieving top results in the Laboratory for Medicinal Plant Research in the School of Life Sciences, and benefiting from training under the University Capacity Development Programme (UCDP).
After achieving a summa cum laude result of 90% during her master’s, the highest among her peers, Bantho was able to upgrade her degree to a PhD to hone her specialisation in microscopy, phytochemistry, nanoparticle synthesis and biological activity evaluation techniques in medicinal plant research.
Capped at the Autumn Graduation ceremonies, Bantho analysed the phytochemical components of the indigenous river bushwillow tree (Combretum erythrophyllum) for use in drug delivery systems. This species is valued in Africa for its many applications in traditional medicine; it is used to treat bacterial infections, venereal diseases, abdominal pain, sores, infertility, and labour pains, and displays anti-viral, anti-parasitic, cytotoxic, and mutagenic activity.
To close the gap in knowledge about this species, Bantho conducted a comparative analysis of the biological activity of leaf and stembark extracts of C. erythrophyllum under the supervision of Professor Yougasphree (Yogis) Naidoo. She examined its micromorphological features, histo-phytochemistry, total flavonoid and phenolic content, as well as the antioxidant, antibacterial, apoptotic and cytotoxic (anticancer) potential of the plant’s extracts.
Bantho found that the river bushwillow has potential for use in modern medicine, with her work providing grounds to further isolate compounds from the best-performing extracts. She said that its considerable medicinal potential should be evaluated for the transformation of isolated compounds into a drug. Her research resulted in two publications in the South African Journal of Botany with more forthcoming.
Originally from Durban, Bantho completed all her degrees at UKZN, drawn to the Institution by its international reputation and proximity to home. With its well-equipped research facilities, it was the ideal environment to pursue her interest in medicinal plant research, sparked by her passion for helping people and finding solutions by adding value to current medical knowledge.
‘Seeing the negative impacts of conventional treatments for many diseases, I decided to explore an avenue that would possibly allow for the same or better results with minimal side effects,’ she said.
During her studies, Bantho was selected for the UCDP PhD Teacher Training Programme, receiving instruction in the fundamental skills necessary for an academic career. Topics included effective time management, lecture delivery and classroom management, teaching strategies, online and blended learning systems, curriculum and design, assessment, and instructional design of research projects and proper prioritisation for completing a PhD.
She received scholarships from the National Research Foundation for her master’s and PhD studies and became a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society. Bantho had the opportunity to present at conferences including the congregation of the South African Association of Botanists in 2018, the international Conference on Traditional Medicine and Phytochemistry and the 56th Microscopy Society of Southern African conference, receiving awards for the best micrograph and the international Wirsam prize for best presentation at the latter. Presenting at UKZN’s annual Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium in 2020 and 2021, Bantho won third place for the best flash presentation and the award for the most impactful presentation, respectively.
Aiming at a career in drug development systems and cancer research, Bantho hopes to gain experience at a pharmaceutical company and is considering postdoctoral research.
She thanked her family for their support and for affording her the opportunity to pursue her dreams, saying that her ultimate goal is to make her parents proud. She also thanked Naidoo for her support and guidance and for the platform to complete her research.
Words: Christine Cuénod