BFRG Highlights 2016

Welcome to the BFRG Highlights, our new feature, to celebrate our success of the past year and to reflect on some of the exciting developments in the Brain Function Research Group!

We started off 2016 with the very first BFRG Research Day, and hosted collaborator Romy Parker from Cape Town as our invited speaker and judge. It was great fun and a huge success, and we hope to do the same again next year. Congratulations to Anna Haw on taking home the prize for best speaker.

On the student front, many of our students made excellent progress this year:

Honours student Kristin Nel, who conducted research on ethnic variations in autonomic skin wrinkling with Peter Kamerman in the Pain Lab, says: “I truly loved the atmosphere in the BFRG lab and would choose to work with this group of professionals over and over again – thank you.”

PhD student Arista Botha from the Wildlife Conservation Physiology (WCP) team started her study on the nutritional ecology of free-living buffalo in the Kruger National Park by having 13 buffalo implanted with miniature temperature-sensitive data loggers in February 2016. Since then she’s been going back every two months to collect blood samples and carry out vegetation analyses. Arista is looking forward to removing the loggers and getting her data early next year. Arista also wrote some great blog articles on her experiences with buffalos in the bush, and on her lab work.


A large buffalo bull can weigh close to a tonne. Photo by Arista Botha

Another WCP PhD student, Nora Weyer, was awarded a prestigious Oppenheimer Memorial Trust scholarship this year. She was also invited by the Zoological Society / Zoological Garden in Frankfurt, Germany, to present a public talk on the responses of aardvark to the hot and dry conditions in the Kalahari semi-desert. Read about Nora’s PhD research in Afrotherian Conservation and the Diamond Route Newsletter, or follow her aardvark news on Twitter. Nora finished her data collection after spending six months at the University of Cape Town analysing aardvark scats and prey abundance samples in the lab of Professor Mike Picker. She is now back in Joburg working hard at analysing her data and writing up. “It’s been another phenomenal year doing my PhD with the BFRG, and I hope that 2017 will be just as exciting!”  Good luck for the final stretch!

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Another postgraduate student  in the WCP team, Wendy Panaino, also has been conducting research in the Kalahari, on the ecophysiology of ground pangolins (read more on her blog). Aside from the blog article, she had great media coverage on her pangolins, such as this CNN video . On her highlight this year, Wendy reports that “just being surrounded by amazing people in the field of wildlife and research has been such an incredible experience in terms of how much I have learned from these people and how much I have grown.”

Pangolin face

A pangolin looks up from its ant meal. Photo by Wendy Panaino

Led by Nora and Wendy, our WCP team recently joined an interesting collaboration with Dr Frédéric Delsuc (University of Montpellier, France), who studies the evolution of the gut microbiome of free-living aardvarks and pangolins, and other ant- and termite-eating mammals in the Kalahari.

News from the Sleep Lab is that Chloe Flinn has been recruiting participants for her MSc research on the effect of sleep disturbance on pain sensitivity. Chloe has also had some great media attention: visited her at Wits to film a short piece on her research project. Watch the video here, and follow Chloe’s research on facebook to find out more!

Prinisha Pillay, from the pain lab started a longitudinal project for her PhD at a new site this year and submitted her second paper from her PhD research (fingers crossed!). Next year she is looking forward to completing her data collection early in the year and submitting her thesis by December 2017.

Several of our postgraduate students successfully completed their studies in 2016:

Anna Haw, research officer, veterinarian and PhD student in the WCP team completed her PhD (read about her project here), while MSc students Stephanie de Lange (who graduated in 2015 from the University of Pretoria, co-supervised by Andrea and Anna, WCP team) and Tanusha Dukhan (Fever Lab) who graduated this year had their graduation ceremonies. Both Stephanie and Tanusha graduated with distinctions. PhD student Sean Chetty from the Pain Lab completed his PhD and will join the graduation ceremony in December. MSc students Dershnee Devan (Pain Lab) and Kirsten Redman (Sleep Lab) are in the process of completing their degrees following examination. We wish them all the best, and hope to see them on the graduations list soon!

Edward (“Ned”) Snelling, from the University of Adelaide, joined the WCP team in April as a postdoctoral fellow and was very quick off the mark in publishing papers. One of his publications had social media buzzing. Ned also started the BFRG “coffee club”, which led to the Illy coffee shop on the 4th floor of Med School doubling its profits! All of the coffee club members were delighted by the arrival a month ago of our new coffee machine in the Richard Hellon room!


Another postdoc in the BFRG, Gaëlle Ngassa, who joined the Pain Lab last year, started recruiting patients for her project investigating epigenetic changes of HIV-associated sensory neuropathy in an African population. She has already submitted her first paper from this project to the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, and published two others from her previous work. Next year, Gaëlle looks forward to starting her epigenetic analysis.


Toni Wadley completed her 3-year Hillel Friedland Postdoctoral Fellowship with the Pain Lab and, following the departure of Anna Haw to Stanford for an MBA programme, took over as our BFRG Research Officer and Lecturer in the School of Physiology. In her own words: “If I had to design my best job, this would be it!” Toni has kept the BFRG running smoothly and we wish her all the best for the coming year. Her big paper from her postdoc also had great media coverage.


Patricia Price, honorary BFRG member and collaborator in the Pain Lab, paid us a visit earlier this year and presented a talk to the School of Physiology about “An integrated study of immune recovery in HIV/HCV patients beginning ART in Indonesia”. Peter Kamerman will reciprocate next year and visit Patricia at Curtin University in Perth.

The Pain Lab has some really exciting collaborations and joint projects planned for next year. We look forward to reporting more on that in our 2017 blogs!

In the Sleep Lab, Karine Scheuermaier was on sabbatical this year giving her the opportunity to work on some collaborative research this year. She spent two month in Berlin, Germany working with her former Harvard colleague, Dr Mirjam Münch. They re-visited performance data from a study they had run together on the impact of evening light exposure on healthy older adults who complained of disrupted sleep. She also started a collaborative research study with Dr Katinka de Wet from the University of the Free State on sleep and HIV interactions. The sisters Mosilo and Mampho Machere started data collection in the Tseki clinic in Phuthaditjhaba (Qwa Qwa), braving the cold weather.  Finally, she was given an opportunity to publish with Dr Duffy on nocturia in a special circadian rhythms and aging issue of Current Aging Science.


Lois Harden, from the fever group, was also on sabbatical this year. She undertook several collaborative projects with researchers Dr Helen Steele, from the Department of Immunology at the University of Pretoria, Prof Shabir Madhi and Dr Gaurav Kwatra, from the Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit (RMPRU) based at Chris Hani Baragwanath related to fever and sickness behaviour and immune responses to Groups B Streptococcus. She also helped several postgraduate students in the fever group with data collection and analysis and worked on 12 publications including both human and animal based studies.

The BFRG members also travelled and networked extensively this year. Some of the local conferences attended included the PainSA congress in Umhlanga, where Prinisha took the joint first prize for best oral presentation, the Oppenheimer De Beers Group Research Conference in Johannesburg, the Mammal Research Institute 50th Anniversary Conference at Mopani Camp in Kruger National Park, the South African Wildlife Management Association Symposium in Tzaneen, and the South African Society of Sleep Medicine conference in Johannesburg. Several of our students also participated at the Wits Health Sciences Research Day.

PainSA Group photo

Toni Wadley (far right) and the rest of the team, (from the left) Sean Chetty, Peter Kamerman, Prinisha and Dershnee Devan at the PainSA congress. (Photo by Toni Wadley)

International conferences included the Society of Experimental Biology conference in Brighton, UK, the Elsevier Inflammation symposium, Miami, Florida, the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology, Washington, D. C., and the European Sleep Research Society Meeting in Bologna, Italy. Toni and Peter attended the World Pain Congress in Yokohama, Japan, where Peter was elected as Vice Chair of NeuPSIG, the Neuropathic Pain division of IASP (International Association for the Study of Pain).

There were also personal highlights for many members of the Group. Robyn Hetem and Maartin Strauss welcomed their second child, Ayden John, and a few days later our Honorary Research Fellows (and previous postdocs) Ian Murray and Hilary Lease introduced their son Osirus to the world. Duncan Mitchell was delighted by the arrival of his second grandson in New Zealand.

To round off the year, the Swanepoel family hosted a BFRG staff braai, and everyone joined in to celebrate a productive 2016 at the BFRG publications tea!

Next year, we will be welcoming many new members into our group. We are also excited for Duncan to be plenary speaker at the International Union of Physiological Sciences Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and at the International Mammalogical Congress in Perth, Australia. There will surely be lots of exciting news in 2017, so follow us here on the blog, and on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with us throughout the year.

The BFRG Team wishes everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


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