Youth Of The BBSA: The Future Of Biodiversity Biobanking

Biobanks can help study, preserve and protect our biodiversity – and also help us learn to deal with diseases and genetic abnormalities in humans, livestock and more. But science doesn’t stand still – and that’s especially true when it comes to biodiversity biobanking, where new technologies and techniques are invented every day. 

“Biodiversity biobanking is a young science, with a lot of growth potential,” says Michelle Hamer, Project lead for the Biodiversity Biobanks South Africa (BBSA). “Of course, it relies on the work done by many generations of scientists – but it also relies on new generations, who will bring new energy and ideas that are needed to ensure that our biodiversity collections are secured and increasingly used for achieving sustainable, enriched life on Earth.”

The BBSA provides a coordinating structure across several of South Africa’s existing biodiversity biobanks, with the main aim of increasing the range and quality of samples stored and/or distributed, and increasing and improving access for research and development through a single, centralised data portal, which also allows more strategic collection of samples.

It’s a big job. To keep up, we need more biobanks. And for that, we need more biobankers. And for that, we need to train, promote and celebrate young biobank researchers.

Luckily, the BBSA has that in spades. So here are some of South Africa’s most promising young biobankers…


Mpho Mohlakoana: The Powerful Potential Of Plants

SANBI’s Indigenous Plant DNA Biobank has a lot on its plate. As the name implies, the biobank focuses mainly on South Africa’s indigenous plants – of which there are over 22 000, many of them endemic, and many of them not very well understood. Luckily, botanist – and plant enthusiast – Mpho Mohlakoana is here to help. 

SANBI Indigenous Plant DNA Biobank researcher Mpho Mohlakoana

Mpho Mohlakoana’s passion for plants and pharmacology has brought her to the SANBI Indigenous Plant DNA Biobank.

With an MSc in Botany and Biochemistry from the University of Johannesburg (with a Specialization in Ethnobotany and phytochemistry), Mpho has been a tutor, a lab demonstrator, a research assistant, and more – and ultimately, she hopes to start a phytopharmaceutical company and travel the world doing research on plant pharmaceuticals. It’s all driven by one thing: a passionate belief in the power of plants – and people. 

“Biobanking has been spoken about more than being done, especially in South Africa. There aren’t a lot of plant biobanks – and especially DNA plant biobanks. It’s something that’s fresh and new, something that’s innovative. So the biobank is a spectacle – a state-of-the-art lab where we get to do cutting-edge research. It’s basically a candy store for scientists. It’s a really exciting project…and I’m lucky enough to actually get to be a part of it.”

Want to know what Mpho thinks about biobanking, life and everything? Find out here.


Khathu Neshunzhi – Learning To Love The (Wild)Life

When he was a young lad growing up in Limpopo, Khathutshelo Neshunzhi was given two important bits of advice. First, don’t ever stop learning and growing as a person. And second, whatever you do, give it 100%. And that’s advice that definitely comes in handy as a Biobank Technician at the SANBI Wildlife Biobank – one of South Africa’s biggest and most important biodiversity biobanks.

SANBI Wildlife Biobank Technician Khathu Neshunzi

SANBI Wildlife Biobank Technician Khathu Neshunzhi lives his life according to two principles: never stop learning, and always give it your all.

Khathu’s always been interested in biodiversity – he completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Life Sciences at the University of Limpopo, where he was the chairperson of the Biodiversity Society on campus, and led educational trips to take his fellow students out of the country to gain biodiversity knowledge. But when he joined the NZG Biobank, starting as an intern…he was hooked.

“That is where I found my passion. I fell in love with the biobanking thing, with what it could mean for biodiversity conservation and preserving our biological heritage. I’ve definitely developed a passion for this field, so I think I’d love to develop more knowledge in preservation and conservation, and improve my  understanding of research. I don’t know exactly what that means, or where that will take me, but what I really want is to learn and develop more – and to put those skills to good use. It’s hard to imagine a better place to do that than here at the biobank.”

Learn more about Khathu’s life-long quest for learning (among other things) here.


Rekha Sathyan: Filling In Life’s Gaps

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. But BBSA postdoctoral researcher Rekha Sathyan is up to the challenge.

Biodiversity Biobanks South Africa Postdoc Researcher Rekha Sathyan

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

Rekha earned a BSc Honours, a Master’s degree, a PhD, and then two postdoctoral fellowships, all at the University of the Western Cape. 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.

“Right now, I’m dedicated to making a meaningful contribution to South Africa’s biodiversity biobanks. Ultimately, once we identify the gaps, we can envision an expansion plan and a unified platform for sample access. This endeavor has the potential to address critical issues on both a national and global scale – but it’s a project that requires time and patience. Luckily, 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.” 

Read more about what Rekha has to say about life at the BBSA here.


Youth of Biobanking: Share YOUR Story!

Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are biobanks on university campuses, in dedicated research facilities and even at national parks, staffed by young, up-and-coming biotechnologists, veterinary scientists or technologists, microbiologists, crop scientists, botanists and more.

Want to know more about some of the BBSA’s young (and not-so-young) biobankers? Not to worry – we’ve got you covered here.

And are you a young scientist, technician or biodiversity biobanker of any sort (35s and under only, sadly – but we know you’re all young at heart)? Or do you know someone who fits the bill? And do you want to help inspire the next generation to be all that they can be?

Well, we want to share your story with the world – and let the youth of today know that they can make a difference…and it’s worth it. Just contact us here, or email, and let us celebrate you – and inspire others.

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….