Karen Pillay (née Muthusamy), a Lecturer in UKZN’s School of Life Sciences, has an impeccable academic record.  Leaving high school armed with a full suite of subject distinctions, Karen went on to complete her BSc degree in Biomedical Science cum laude and her BSc Honours degree summa cum laude. On 17 April Pillay graduated with a PhD degree in Biochemistry from UKZN. 

Pillay’s doctoral research lies in amyloid diseases, in particular, type II (non-insulin-dependent) diabetes. Her dissertation topic was the ‘Synthesis and Aggregation Dynamics of Amylin’. Pillay was supervised by Dr Patrick Govender.

Pillay’s decision to pursue her MSc and PhD in the fields of Chemistry and Biochemistry, moving away from her background in Biomedical Science and Medical Microbiology, highlights her versatility in scientific research. In 2011 Pillay was one of six UKZN women to scoop a prestigious ‘Women in Science’ Award from the national Department of Science and Technology.  She was awarded a doctoral fellowship for her outstanding contribution to the scientific knowledge base of her discipline.

Pillay grew up in Chatsworth. Her high school years were spent at Westcliff Secondary, where she emerged as Dux of the school.

‘My parents, Siva and Theresa, played an integral role in encouraging me to reach for the stars,’ said Pillay. ‘They never pressured me to go into any particular field and were always supportive of anything that I chose to do.’

In 2009, Pillay married Keagan, an IT specialist. ‘I met him just before going to Sweden as part of my MSc and I needed a laptop,’ she said.  ‘My cousin put me in touch with him for advice and, as they say, the rest is history!  He has been extremely supportive and keeps me motivated to be the best that I can be.’

Pillay said she received expert guidance from her research group supervisors during her PhD research. ‘Without their expertise, I would not be where I am today,’ she said. ‘Dr Patrick Govender has always inspired me to persevere and make a success of whatever I set out to do. He is also my mentor for the Leadership and Equity Advancement Programme and has been instrumental in helping me adjust to life in academia.’

Pillay said she stumbled upon Biochemistry when her MSc project required biological testing of the compounds she had synthesised. ‘My eyes were opened to how vital Biochemistry is. Without Biochemistry, even the most basic of our functions would not be possible - that’s what grabs me,’ she said.

Pillay explained that type II diabetes mellitus, the subject of her research, affects more than 154 million people in South Africa alone. The numbers are rising as obesity, stress and poor eating habits take their toll. Currently there is no therapeutic agent that can slow down or stop the progression of type II diabetes.

‘Amyloid diseases are characterised by a particular peptide/protein called amylin in the case of type II diabetes, which has a propensity to aggregate and become toxic to pancreatic beta cells,’ said Pillay. Her research examined peptide-based inhibitors of the aggregation process and cytotoxicity.

‘As there is currently no gold standard technique for testing potential inhibitors, another aspect of my research involved looking at surface plasmon resonance and NanoSight technology as potential screening techniques,’ she said. ‘In addition, there are some gaps in understanding the mechanistics of the cellular interaction of amylin. My research shed light on this using confocal microscopy and live cell imaging.’

Pillay said since the latter years of her schooling, she was interested in drug development. ‘To play even a small role in finding a treatment that could be used for the well-being of people has always been a very intriguing aspect for me,’ she said.  ‘I know many people with type II diabetes and the fact that my dad was diagnosed with a mild case of it, motivates me even more to contribute to the fight against this disease.’

‘As my peptide-based inhibitors and novel screening techniques would bring us a step closer to finding an agent that could delay or even stop amylin aggregation, and as progression of type II diabetes leads to numerous secondary complications such as blindness, heart attacks, strokes and renal failure, an agent that could stop progression of the disease would have far-reaching consequences.’

Pillay enjoys being an Academic and a Lecturer. ‘I hope to be able to make a significant impact on young minds. I would like to stay at UKZN as this Institution has a reputation for its brilliant research and has the necessary resources available.  And I love Durban.’

Now that her PhD is complete, Pillay can afford to take some time out to relax with family and friends.



author email : frosts@ukzn.ac.za