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Cape Town curanderas

South African students research plant-based medicines at Mizzou

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  • Story and photos by Josh Murray
  • Published: July 27, 2012
Dineo Nkholise and Monyamaku Mamadisa

University of the Western Cape students Happy Mamadisa (left) and Dineo Nkholise spent the summer researching plant-based medicine in a Mizzou Undergraduate Research program.

Never before has anyone traveled as far as Dineo Nkholise and Monyamaku Mamadisa to take part in MU’s Undergraduate Research summer programs.

On May 28 Nkholise and Mamadisa left Cape Town, South Africa, for a 24-hour trip to Mizzou, where the two University of the Western Cape students would spend the summer conducting research.

Historic partnership

In 1986, the University of Missouri System began an academic and research exchange program with the University of the Western Cape. The agreement was signed during the restrictive South African Apartheid and was the first such agreement between a U.S. university and a historically black South African university.

Through the program, faculty members from each university spend time on the sister university's campus. More than 365 faculty exchange visits have taken place between MU and UWC so far.

Nkholise and Mamadisa are the first undergraduate research students to participate in the exchange program. They have spent two months on the Mizzou campus, conducting research with the MU Institute for Clinical and Translational Sciences (MU-iCATS).

“It is a great experience,” Nkholise says. “It’s a chance to travel to a new place and a great opportunity to get a different type of research experience.”  

Students from Mizzou’s School of Law and College of Engineering are currently at the University of the Western Cape, and MU plans to send medical students to UWC in the next few years.

Home away from home

The trip from Cape Town to Columbia took Nkholise and Mamadisa though London, Chicago and St. Louis before they arrived in Columbia, their home for the summer.

“I found Missouri so welcoming. It felt like home,” says Mamadisa, who goes by the nickname Happy.  

It may have felt like home, but it didn’t look like it.

“The campus is quite big,” says Nkholise, at least twice as big as her home university. “The buildings and the infrastructure are a lot bigger here.”  

The two students are living in Defoe-Graham Hall, which Nkholise compares to a hotel and Mamadisa describes as “glamorous.”

New research experiences

Both students are working with Zezong Gu, a professor in the School of Medicine, on botanical-related translational research projects.  

“Dineo and Happy are doing challenging work,” Gu says, “but they are already familiar with the techniques and are working to generate meaningful data.”  

Mamadisa examines herbal botanical medicines often used by traditional healers in South Africa to see if they have any effect on preventing strokes. Nkholise tests botanical extracts to observe their influence on different types of cells and determine whether they can be used to cure diseases.

“We are running analysis to see if botanical extracts can be used for larger-scale experiments and test for diseases,” Nkholise says. “This is all new to me. It is really exciting.” 

Nkholise describes the lab as very organized. Both young scientists plan to take what they have learned from working in Gu’s lab and use it to improve the function and efficiency of their lab back home.

“It’s definitely very different,” Nkholise says about the research at Missouri. “I learn something new every day.” 

Jiankun Cui, a professor in the School of Medicine, is working with both students and is the leading author on Mamadisa’s study.

In addition to conducting research, students participating in summer programs through the Office of Undergraduate Research have opportunities to take part in seminars and workshops, as well as several social functions.

Nkholise and Mamadisa have toured Columbia, taken a trip to Kansas City and found time for shopping. While there is fun to be had, their experience at Missouri will be judged by their work in the lab.

“There is a lot invested in sending us here,” Nkholise says. “So, it is expected that we come back with additional skills.”  

Returning home

Nkholise will go back to researching botanical plants, focusing mostly on African-traditional plants, when she returns to UWC, where she is studying whether people who are diabetic may use alternative forms of medicine.

“I am trying to analyze what they use, what the reasons are and what their perceptions of Western medicines and African medicines are,” she explains.

Mamadisa, who is in her first year as a master’s student at Western Cape, is working on a research project to identify traditional herbal medicines for mental illness.

“I’m planning to go into the field and collect data to see what kind of medical plants can help treat mental illness,” she says.

After completing school, both Mamadisa and Nkholise are interested in careers in public health. Before that they will share their experiences at Mizzou with classmates and friends back home and to encourage others to take advantage of the opportunity of studying at MU.

“It has been great,” Nkholise says. “I’ve made contacts that will aid me in the future. I am truly grateful.”

Mamadisa adds, “I wish I could come back. I’m just so absorbed in my research here.”

Read more in:  On CampusScience & TechnologyAgriculture & the EnvironmentEducationHealth & MedicineBeyond Campus

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Last updated: July 27, 2012