3MT finalist’s research is personal

27 August 2019

PhD student Ibidolapo Adekoya's research interest hit home when her brother was struck down by malaria.

Luckily her brother has recovered, thanks to treatment from one of the only drugs available to treat the disease, but for 'Dola', as she is referred to around campus, the family diagnosis brought it home to her as to why her research is important for future drug development.

"He took different malaria drugs but they didn't work. And he tried the last one, and that luckily worked," she says.

The Nigerian-born postgraduate student's research focuses on helping medicinal chemists with knowledge that they can use to develop new antimalarial drugs.

Based out of the ANU Research School of Chemistry, Dola will be talking about her research in September's ANU Three Minute Thesis (3MT) final at Llewellyn Hall.

"Broadly, I study protein structures," she says, "so that we can understand how they function."

"When you know the structure of the protein, you can design drugs with a shape that would block the protein, and when the protein is blocked, it cannot do its job."

In the 3rd year of her PhD, Dola's research also looks at how the protein interacts with other proteins, so chemists can also develop a drug that can block that interaction.

"When you block that interaction you know there is trouble for the parasite," she says.

Presently, only one drug developed to treat malaria is effective for treatment, with older drugs now deemed ineffective. Most of the drugs used in the past to treat it have been modified from original versions.

"So in my research, I'm actually looking at how we can target a key protein in the malaria parasite that is responsible for other proteins in the parasite as well."

Her interest in malaria stems from the fact that the disease is very common back home in Nigeria.

"It does drive my passion for the project. Doing a PhD is very hard, so it's good to do a PhD where you are self-motivated - for me I am personally connected to the research that I am doing."

Her brother wasn't the only one she knows who has been affected by malaria either.

"I have a friend that had cerebral malaria and she was in a coma for months. She didn't die from it but it was a very scary situation."

Dola's first taste of the 3MT was in 2017 when she was in the audience and realised that she wanted to communicate her work to people in the same way.

"Before I came to Australia I had never heard of science communication. But I always knew that I wanted to communicate my work to a wider audience. Growing up in Nigeria, I didn't see people that looked like me talk about science so there wasn't public awareness of science and I hardly knew of anyone that aspired to be a scientist. So, I'm really happy to be among the finalists," she says.

"Moreover, we get funded by the public, so it's important to let them know what their money is being used for and to say it in simple English."

Dola says the process of thinking about how to communicate her research is not an easy one.

"And it's good to get that training, it makes you really think about how to clearly explain your research to people who are just hearing about it for the first time. "

As for her personal connection to the disease, Dola says her brother's diagnosis reinvigorated her drive to continue with her research.

"When I am in the lab and things don't go well and I'm disappointed that experiments are failing, and I feel like I don't have direction on what to do next, participating in the Three Minute Thesis and thinking about my research outside of the lab, has helped me to understand that it's very important.

"It has reignited my passion for my PhD and also really helped me to understand what a huge impact my research has, and to be motivated around not just understanding the why but that there is a greater purpose and greater calling of in doing this research.

"It's not just about getting the degree and having a doctor title in front of my name."

To listen to Dola's presentation about her research, head along to the 3MT final. For more information about the 3MT, or any of the other services offered by the ANU Research Skills and Training team, head to their website.