Rekha Sathyan: What’s In Our Biodiversity Biobanks Anyway?

Biobanks are essential to preserving South Africa’s vast biodiversity heritage. But to get the most out of them, we need to know what’s in them – and what isn’t. That’s a lot of work, and it calls for some serious dedication. Luckily, Biodiversity Biobanks South Africa (BBSA) postdoctoral researcher Rekha Sathyan is up to the challenge.

Rekha Sathyan’s love for nature started in school - but it didn’t end there.

Rekha Sathyan’s love for nature started in school – but it didn’t end there.

“My love for nature started during my school days,” she says. “I wanted to learn more about nature because I’m fascinated by the incredible way it works. It’s been an amazing journey, and there’s still a lot to learn.”

The journey started in Kerala, India, where she completed a BSc in Zoology at Calicut University. She got married and lived in Mumbai and Ethiopia, and had the chance to be a science teacher in high school in Ethiopia.

But she never forgot her first love – and when the family moved to Cape Town, she decided to do something about it.

“I was advised that opportunities are rare, so when you’re fortunate enough to get that one chance, you must give it your absolute best,” she says. “So I always strive for self-improvement; there are no barriers that can deter me from acquiring new knowledge and skills.”

That’s not hyperbole. She began studying as an Honours student in the Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at the University of the Western Cape, continued studying to earn a Master’s degree and ultimately a PhD, and then completed two postdoctoral fellowships, all in the same department.

Dr Rekha Sathyan is dedicated to helping figure out what is - and isn’t - in South Africa’s biodiversity biobanks.

Dr Rekha Sathyan is dedicated to helping figure out what is – and isn’t – in South Africa’s biodiversity biobanks.

And now, as a postdoctoral researcher on the Biodiversity Biobanks Gap Analysis & Expansion Project, Rekha helps to ensure that biodiversity biobanks have appropriate holdings so that they serve society in terms of food security, conservation, economic development, health, research and capacity development.

Here’s what Rekha has to say about life at the BBSA.

What is the BBSA Gap Analysis and Expansion Project actually for?
Our focus is on the nationwide biobanks in South Africa, with a particular emphasis on the core biobanks of BBSA. Many of these biobanks have amassed samples spanning over 20 years. Therefore, our examination includes a thorough analysis of these data, encompassing aspects such as management, quality assurance, and the objectives of these biobanks. Ultimately, once we identify the gaps, we can envision an expansion plan and a unified platform for sample access. This effort holds great potential not only for South Africa, but also for other countries. Achieving this goal will require a high level of coordination, credibility, and professionalism within the BBSA. 

It sounds like a pretty big job.
Well, we recognize that this project requires time and patience, as each biobank houses thousands of samples in its database, it is time taking to organize the data and arrange for further analysis. Fortunately, all the core biobanks are fully supportive of this project. It’s heartening to see the level of cooperation and support we’re receiving from all the biobank managers, some of whom are even contributing fresh ideas and insights. We are sincerely grateful for their cooperation and commitment.

So what’s a typical work day like for you?
As a researcher at BBSA, my primary focus revolves around studying and comprehending the current status of biodiversity biobanks in South Africa, as well as learning about biodiversity biobanking worldwide. This involves extensive reading and acquiring proficiency in various software tools to analyze data received from biobanks.

What do you do to relax?
I like reading good books, and writing my gratitude journal. And as a mother of two boys, my weekends are dedicated to enjoying quality family time with them.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?
My goal is to establish myself as a renowned researcher in South Africa within the next decade – but I’m adaptable and ready to go with the flow. The decision to resume my studies brought about a transformation in me, and I firmly believe that my wisdom and courage will only blossom further with age – and ultimately, my dreams are immeasurable.


Want to know more about the Biodiversity Biobanks Gap Analysis & Expansion Project? Read all about it here – or watch Rekha and her colleagues explain it in this webinar. And while you’re at it, why not meet more of the folks who make the BBSA’s work possible?

What are biodiversity biobanks?

Biodiversity biobanks are repositories of biologically relevant resources, including reproductive tissues such as seeds, eggs and sperm, other tissues including blood, DNA extracts, microbial cultures (active and dormant), and environmental samples containing biological communities….