Biochemistry Honours Graduate is on Malaria Trail

Research into malaria is an investigative field Honours in Biochemistry graduate Mr Tim Kirkman will follow in his studies for a master’s degree.

Kirkman attended St Charles College in Pietermaritzburg, which he credits for his excellent education and for introducing him to the natural world through hikes and informal lessons on nature.

A keen hockey player, he developed an interest in medical sciences when he became involved in sports physiotherapy and also while on a work experience at Grey’s Hospital during a school holiday to gain insight into various medical professions.

He initially planned to study physiotherapy but instead found himself accepted into UKZN’s Life and Environmental Sciences BSc stream, starting out in biological sciences. A meeting with Professor Dean Goldring during his first year about options for his degree and beyond, and subsequent time spent in Goldring’s laboratory during a winter vacation, exposed Kirkman to the scope of biochemistry, which encompasses aspects of disciplines such as microbiology, chemistry and genetics.

Kirkman developed an interest in laboratory work, and taking a module introducing biochemistry and microbiology led to a change in degree focus to these disciplines. Exploring the application of biochemistry in real-world cases in his third year, particularly in the causes and treatment of disease, cemented his passion for the field.

One of only 10 Biochemistry honours students in Pietermaritzburg, Kirkman pursued the course to gain the experience necessary to pursue a scientific career.

He describes his honours as a fantastic, yet challenging year, requiring students to adjust to longer lectures and practicals and fuller days as well as higher expectations from staff. The change also required better time management and a proactive approach.

Kirkman’s project, under the supervision of Goldring, concerned the characterisation of a new type of protein stain on nitrocellulose membranes for qualitative and quantitative analysis. This gave him insight into the applications of biochemistry, and he credits Goldring’s laboratory for exposing him and his classmates to a holistic view of the scientific world through activities such as their journal reading club.

Kirkman, now enrolled for masters studies under Goldring’s supervision, says he is keen to join a field in which he can make a difference, and so works under the umbrella of Goldring’s malaria research.

The research involves the characterisation of new protein targets for rapid diagnostic tests, which would enable greater access to affordable diagnostic testing, particularly in rural areas. While there are currently rapid diagnostic tests in use, these test for specific proteins that are not always present in the sampled malaria strain. Developing new tests to target different proteins will expand the pool of tests available and ensure greater accuracy and reliability.

After completing his master’s, Kirkman hopes to study further, or perhaps enter the medical research field to work on things like vaccine development.

While a student, Kirkman played hockey for UKZN in Durban as well as for the senior KwaZulu-Natal side and was part of the South African U21 squad. He is also involved in leadership and music at his church.

Kirkman acknowledged his father, Professor Kevin Kirkman, and the rest of his family for their support. He thanked Goldring and other academic staff who have lectured and mentored him, saying that he felt a sense of belonging in the discipline thanks to the staff’s approachability and willingness to help.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied