Published 13 July 2023 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Nabila Ismail

Nabila from South Africa is also featured on the Women in Research blog. All photos/credit: in courtesy of Nabila Ismail

Nabila is a Research Scientist at Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa. Her research niche is drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB). She is very keen on investigating how specific drugs work within the bacteria that causes TB: Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Her research involves the generation of drug-resistant mutants, analysis of sequence data for drug-resistance mutations, and investigation of cross-resistance pathways.

Nabila participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Nabila and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

When I was in high school, I used to attend a programme called UP with Science at a nearby University (University of Pretoria). I remember the talk given by a Professor of Biochemistry during the programme. He said a career in Biochemistry would ensure that even though you might not make much money, you will never be bored. So, my undergraduate degree, as well as my Honours and Master’s, were all in the field of Biochemistry, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was then fortunate enough to get a job as a research assistant at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, and my supervisor, Dr Shaheed Vally Omar, taught me so much about the field of drug-resistant TB (DR-TB). A specific day comes to mind whenever I need some inspiration for what I do. There was a young child in the hospital who needed a specific type of drug-resistant assay, and it was an urgent request. I was in the laboratory and managed to get the result out. Unfortunately, the child had a mixed infection, and as a scientist, you have no idea about the outcome, but I remember thinking scientists are needed to provide this information to the medical community as quickly and reliably as possible. From that day on, I knew I wanted to work in a way that would be impactful-DR-TB is that for me.

Who are your role models?

In a career sense, my role model is Prof Debra Meyer. I am so fortunate to have her as a mentor in my life. She is also a woman of color who has achieved so much in the science sphere. Not only is she successful in her career, but she has had roles as Head of Department, Dean and she is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Sol-Plaatje University. She also actively mentors young women like me, taking time out of her busy schedule to impart advice, give guidance on next steps and provide encouragement for the way ahead. My mum is a role model to me in my personal life. She always mentioned the importance of finding a job that would allow you to raise a family while giving your personal fulfillment. In science, I have that!

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

Nabila is grateful to her supervisors and mentors, without whom she would not be in the position she is today.

I am very fortunate to have received a bursary from UP with Science for my undergraduate degree, followed by the National Research Foundation in South Africa bursaries from my Honours until my postdoctoral fellow years. I have also received bursaries from the University of Pretoria (based on merit, I have received all my degrees cum laude) and a short period of support from the Ethel-Eriksen Trust. I have also been very fortunate to be supported by strong supervisors and mentors. I am eternally grateful for my Ph.D. supervisor, Prof Remco Peters, and the role he has played in my ability to communicate and come across clearly, as well as his guidance in article writing. My supervisor at the NICD, Dr. Shaheed Vally Omar, continues to support my career and guide my understanding of DR-TB. My current supervisor, Prof Robin M Warren, has been unwavering in supporting my development as a scientist and constantly pushing me to new projects. A key challenge I faced was starting a family around the same time my career path kicked off. In 2020, I gave birth to a little girl during the COVID pandemic, it was traumatic, and I struggled quite a bit with post-partum depression. I took a 9-month hiatus from work. Again, I am fortunate because Prof Warren brought me back to work in a part-time capacity. I started at 2 hours a day and have finally worked up to a half-day position. I want to give the best to my family as well as at work, but it is extremely challenging to find the balance as a woman in science.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

The coolest project I have worked on was mutant generation to a novel TB drug, bedaquiline. Imagine this, you begin with a strain of TB that any drug could easily kill you expose it to, but instead, you can create drug resistance by exposing the bacteria to low concentrations of the drug and then increasing these concentrations gradually. Even more exciting is that once you have this mutant strain, you can then see if it is resistant to other drugs that share the same pathway. If there is cross-resistance, this would mean that the bacteria is already resistant to drugs that it has never been exposed to before! I presented this research at a Science Slam and called it “Mutant Ninja Tuberculosis: Creating superbugs to battle the most powerful TB drug.”

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

It’s easy to feel immense pride when you have accomplished something like winning awards or receiving bursaries and recognition. I certainly have felt that way – especially with an honour like this Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and receiving a Fulbright scholarship from August 2023. But a moment that really stands out for me is the immense pride I felt in myself when I could return to work and still look after my little girl to the best of my ability. Additionally, this year when I finally published the last article from my Ph.D. research – after all the challenges, I felt immense pride as it felt like a major milestone for me.

What is a “day in the life” of you like?

A day in my life begins with my little girl, Noora. Until she goes to school, everything is focused on her. Once she is off, my day begins. A huge portion of my work is administration. I either submit new project ethics applications, assist others in doing so, or submit applications to regulatory bodies. The remainder of my day is spent on data analysis or article writing. Unfortunately, the trade-off for part-time work is administration, but it is okay since this allows me to stay in research, do what I love, and have a family.

Nabila is not yet sure which direction her career will take: The academic route or towards influencing health policy.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

There are two paths that interest me at the moment. One of them is moving from a research scientist to an associate professor and upwards on the academic route. The other one is having a role in influencing health policy. I know that for the latter, I would require further qualifications, so I am not there yet, but I am trying to see how my career evolves.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I love arts and crafts. I like to draw or paint and to upcycle furniture. So I look online for cheap antique pieces and redo them. I also love reading. If I am not working or pursuing my hobbies, Noora is my focus, and I love to play with her or read to her. I am also Indian, so we have big extended families and often spend time together during the week or at family get-togethers.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

Be clear about what your research is about and communicate it to those around you; once you understand the relevance, it is easy to be inspired and motivated to push yourself further. Try to reach out to someone who inspires you and ask for advice. Don’t be afraid to take on opportunities that make you uncomfortable. And the most important one for a woman who wants a family and a career in science: you can have it all, just not all the time.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

A) Affordable whole genome sequencing directly from clinical samples
B) Rapid phenotypic drug susceptibility testing

Both of these ensure that a patient gets comprehensive testing as early as possible, which allows for the accurate determination of a drug-resistant profile, allowing them to have a tailor-made regimen and improving their chance of treatment success.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and professors?

Longer-term employment contracts or amendment of current bursary conditions to include short-term contract positions. Increase in part-time positions. Day-cares at academic institutions. All of these would support female scientists in not having to choose between work and home. This is also vital and feasible for institutions because no one gets to work faster than a mother who is playing the balancing game.

Further Information

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.