UKZN PhD Candidate Selected Among Top 200 Young South Africans
Ms Yashodani Pillay, 28, who is a UKZN PhD candidate has been selected in the Mail & Guardian Top 200 South Africans list in recognition of her exceptional academic accomplishments as well as her passion in driving healthcare advocacy.
Each year the Mail & Guardian profiles interesting young people who have stood out from the pack and who exude qualities to look forward to in the country’s future. These under-35s are talented and have shown themselves to be leaders and are the ones to watch.
Pillay, who has won several academic awards and was awarded her Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences degree summa cum laude; was inspired by her mother (Mayesveri Pillay) and aunt (Sharmla Govender) from a young age. Both women were powerful figures in her life; always pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
When it comes to research, Pillay, who is doing the final year of her PhD studies on Toxicology and Molecular Biology, is drawn to mycotoxin contamination in food and beverages (which disproportionately affects developing countries where food transport and storage infrastructure are limited) as a possible etiological agent in non-communicable diseases (NCDs). The incidence of NCDs including diabetes, cancer and heart disease, has risen rapidly in recent years; particularly in developing nations to become the leading cause of mortality worldwide.
Pillay said her specific research was on Patulin, a toxin found most commonly in apple juice and other apple products. These products are consumed in great quantities by babies and young children placing them at risk. ‘We have identified possible epigenetic targets and novel mechanisms of metabolic dysfunction and organ damage resulting from Patulin exposure. While the current strategy to address NCDs focusses on healthy diets and lifestyle changes, our research indicates food quality is also an important consideration,’ she said.
Pillay, who is currently based in Canada, has worked with organisations in health and education sectors which has broadened her understanding of the specific interventions required by those in the poorest and most vulnerable communities. In 2012, she helped organise mobile medical camps for the United Nations’ Association for Human Values. In 2016, she was an intern with UNAIDS and was part of a youth consultation panel for the new national strategic plan on HIV, TB and STIs in 2016/2017.
She thanked her supervisor, Professor AA Chuturgoon, for always motivating her to succeed. ‘Professor Chuturgoon was an integral part of this process, a constant source of encouragement, support and inspiration. I am deeply grateful to him for supporting me throughout the process and encouraging me to pursue my interests in science and beyond,’ she said.
Words: MaryAnn Francis