Natasha Kitchin

MSc Genetics

Bongani Mayosi National Health Scholars Programme / 2020 - Present

Stellenbosch University

Supervisor: Prof Sian M. J. Hemmings

Co-supervisors: Dr Jacqueline S. Womersley and Prof Soraya Seedat

About Natasha’s research

Natasha Kitchin’s research aims to investigate the role that the maternal and infant gut microbiome, and the maternal vaginal microbiome, play in Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Natasha hopes to gain insight into the microbiome as an additional mechanism whereby alcohol exposure can affect neurodevelopment. Future studies may be able to assess the feasibility of developing microbe-based therapies that could target the microbiome in order to alleviate some of the symptoms of FASD.

Natasha has presented the results of her pilot study at the 14th World Congress of Biological Psychiatry in Vancouver, Canada and the 2019 World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics in Anaheim, USA. Additionally Natasha has presented these results at the following local conferences: 18th Biennial Southern African Society for Human Genetics (SASHG) 2019 Congress, Stellenbosch University Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences 62nd and 63rd Annual Academic Day, 2019 Biological Psychiatry Congress, 1st African Microbiome Symposium, 11th Annual Science Postgraduate Symposium, Conference on Biomedical and Natural Sciences and Therapeutics (CoBNeST), and the 2018 South African Society for Bioinformatics (SASBi) and South African Genetics Society (SAGS) Joint Congress.

Natasha received an International Society of Psychiatric Genetics (ISPG) Early Career Investigator Travel Award and a Stellenbosch University Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences Scientific Travel Grant to attend the 2019 World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics in Anaheim, USA. Natasha also received a SASHG Congress Travel Grant to attend the 18th Biennial SASHG 2019 Congress. At the 2019 Biological Psychiatry Congress, Natasha was awarded the Southern African Neuroscience Society (SANS) best poster presentation.

In her free time Natasha serves as an Advisor for the Golden Key Stellenbosch chapter while serving on the Golden Key International Council of Advisors as the Southern African representative. For her role in the society, Natasha was awarded a Golden Key Advisor Professional Development Grant both in 2018 and 2019.

Why did you choose this career?

In Grade 7, thanks to motivation from my Science teacher, I entered the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists not knowing that years later I would be a scientist judging and convening at the same Eskom Expo for Young Scientists. That first Eskom Expo for Young Scientists opened my eyes to the opportunities available to me. My Grade 7 Science teacher and later my Grade 10 Biology teacher and Grade 10 – 12 Science teacher inspired me to pursue a biological science career. In 2010 I moved to Stellenbosch to pursue a BSc Human Life Sciences degree at Stellenbosch University. After falling in love with Genetics in my very first Genetics second year lecture I pursued a postgraduate career in Genetics obtaining a BSc Honours and MSc in Genetics. While working in the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, Department of Biomedical Sciences at Stellenbosch University I was exposed to the wonders of the microbiome. It fascinated me that organisms unseen to the eye could affect vital bodily functions, affecting our susceptibility to disease and even influencing our brain. Since then I have never looked back and I look forward to a fruitful career investigating the role of the microbiome in human health, specifically maternal and infant health.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

The potential impact of my research – this fuels my day to day motivation. My research aims to investigate the role that the maternal and infant gut microbiome, and the maternal vaginal microbiome, play in Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Through this research we hope to gain insight into the microbiome as an additional mechanism whereby alcohol exposure can affect neurodevelopment. This research will form the basis on which future studies can assess the feasibility of developing microbe-based therapies that could target the microbiome in order to alleviate some of the symptoms of FASD. Also every day is different so I’m always learning new things. I also really enjoy interacting with the people in the lab.

An inspirational quote that resonates with you

“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” - J.K. Rowling

Words of encouragement you would like to share with our youth

Make friends with technology – in this day and age you won’t get far without this knowledge. Develop a scientific attitude by explaining science to others. Finally, find a mentor – someone who is honest, can grow your network and who can guide you.

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