Dr Firdous Khan

Research specialist, Human Sciences Research Council

Dr Firdous Khan (30) is a research specialist at the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII) at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in Cape Town. Now a post-doctoral fellow, her research work to identify microRNAs, which regulate the expression of genes, as specific biomarkers in prostate cancer has offered medical science the potential for early-stage prostate cancer detection.

Khan hopes to harness her findings to launch a biotech company producing early-stage prostate cancer testing kits, although she first needs to overcome the challenges of funding and limited business management experience. However, challenges do not daunt Khan for long: she has overcome several during her career. Having grown up in Kimberley, she moved to Cape Town to study towards a BSc in biotechnology and honours in nanotechnology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

She then earned a scholarship to complete her master’s in bioinformatics at The South African National Biodiversity Institute, after which she took a year off to work as a bioinformatics consultant at the UWC Biotechnology department. “While I was consulting and training students at UWC, I was offered a full scholarship to do a PhD (biotechnology/ bioinformatics). It was very interesting, considering it was a new field in South Africa; looking for miRNAs as biomarkers for early detection in disease.

The project would look at miRNA, previously known as ‘junk DNA’, an area not very well researched. Daunted and challenged, I embarked on the work in 2012. There was no set project plan for how to go about it, and frankly, I was terrified.” Admitting that her overall approach to life is to “give everything a try”, she embarked on the research. “It was very slow progress, but eventually I did it. I submitted my PhD, and graduated as the youngest PhD graduate from UWC in 2015.”

Her current role takes her out of the lab and into the statistics field, where producing client reports and engaging with stakeholders are the order of the day — Khan believes she is developing important new skills. “I find myself now at a place where I see the bigger picture beyond the project. As a post-doctoral fellow, I do research, publish off my PhD and contribute to developing country statistics on research and development, innovation and technology transfer in South Africa to inform policy. Trying to combine my background with policy relevant issues is my main goal.”

— Tracy Burrows

Website: http://www.hsrc.ac.za/en/staff/ view/?i=F.&f=Firdous&l=Khan