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South Asian Heritage Month, running from 18 July - 17 August each year, aims to commemorate, and celebrate, South Asian cultures, histories and communities, helping to spread awareness of the diverse heritage and cultures that continue to link the UK with South Asia. Here at DPAG, we are celebrating the stories that make up our diverse and vibrant community. Meet Dr Kalina Naidoo, a Postdoctoral Neuronal Cell Biologist working in the Wade-Martins Group based in the Kavli Institute for Nanoscience Discovery (Kavli INsD).

On why I pursued a career in research

Kalina NaidooWhen I was 10 years old, I discovered some very dusty copies of the Young Scientist book set at my grandmother’s house. It was a book award that my great uncle had received when he was in secondary school. Those 20 books were my first science teacher, and contained methodology for experiments that could be done at home – which I could rarely do because we rarely had the materials required for them. However, this inspired a curiosity in me for how the world works and I have always been inclined to science since then.

on my educational journey to oxford

I did my undergraduate, honours and masters in Medical Science at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa. Following an introductory neuroscience lecture by Professor William Daniels in my final year of my undergraduate, where he stated: ‘with neuroscience research we wish to add quality to life, rather than quantity’, I knew that was the field I wish to specialise in. Following my Masters in South Africa, I received the Cecil Renaud Oversees (CRO) Scholarship which fully funded a Masters in the UK, and brought me to the University of Oxford. I continued my research into the Gut Microbiome by remaining for a DPhil that was fully funded by a commonwealth scholarship. Following my DPhil (June, 2021), I wanted to return to dementia research, so I reached out to Professor Richard Wade-Martins to work with his team on Parkinson’s research.

On my South African background and the story behind my scholarship

In the 1850s, the British colonized both India and South Africa. Sugar Cane was both plentiful in India and the East Coast of South Africa (Durban), so rather than training the local South Africans on how to farm the sugar cane, the British brought thousands of Indians as indentured labourers to work on the sugar cane plantations. Durban is now considered the largest ‘Indian’ city outside of India. With the Group Areas Act (1951), people were segregated according to race, which birthed the Indian Township of Chatsworth, my home. Chatsworth is unique, in that despite being severely under resourced thanks to the Bantu Education Act (1953) which meant that non-white people would receive a subpar education, the students from this township thrived and still managed to excel at a mathematical and scientific level. This is as the people of Chatsworth pooled whatever resources and built their own schools, sometimes volunteering their personal time to educate the youth. This was a quiet resistance against Apartheid law, but resistance nevertheless, and till this day, Chatsworth often produces students who feature in the provincial top ten for final year results.

South Africa and the UK have strong ties due to us being in the Commonwealth, and UK organisations fund quite a few scholarships for South Africans to pursue postgraduate education in the UK. However, more than 90% of these scholarships are awarded to White South Africans, despite being 7.7% of the population. This is because these scholarships work on a meritocracy that cannot exist in a country as deeply steeped in injustice such as South Africa. I remember feeling despondent when researching the CRO scholarship and seeing that a great number of awardees did not look like me and were privately educated. I decided to apply anyway, and following the success of that application, I was featured in our national newspaper – and was featured again when I completed my DPhil – a testament to how uncommon it was for a state educated South African woman of Indian heritage to graduate from Oxford. I’m glad that now when people look up the CRO scholarship they may be encouraged by faces that look like them.

On why I research Parkinson's

I have always wanted to work in the dementia field as I believe in adding quality to life, and I think Parkinson's Disease (PD) is a great avenue to try and achieve this.

On my current researh focus

I am currently working on a GSK funded project that involves investigating sporadic PD patient derived fibroblasts that have been clinically phenotyped into 4 groups. I am determining the lysosomal and mitochondrial function of these groups, so as to postulate avenues that potential therapeutics can target.

On what I most enjoy about my work

The best resource of the Wade-Martins lab are the people – I am very fortunate to have a wealth of expertise no more than a desk away. I enjoy collaborating with team members and working towards a common goal.

On the challenges I have faced in my career

The pandemic was stressful as it was my final year of the DPhil when we went into lockdown, and with South Africa being on the red-list for travel, I had to very quickly secure a job (in a time when not many people were hiring) after the completion of my degree so as to get on a new visa for the UK.

On what is most important to me about my South Asian heritage

A common phrase from back home is ‘I’ll make a plan’ in response to a difficulty. This kind of resourcefulness is a hallmark of my South Asian heritage, where people rarely concede to a challenge – if anything it may be the inspiration for a new invention.

On role models within my cultural heritage

I am a big fan of Mindy Kaling, who did so much for South Asian representation in western media. Her character of Kelly Kapoor in The Office broke the stereotype of what South Asian woman were portrayed to be – she wasn’t a doctor, she was opinionated, and Kaling herself was a writer on the show.

On why it is important to celebrate South Asian Heritage Month

Our world is fortunately becoming more and more diverse, and I think it’s great to learn about the heritage of so many people around us, especially of minorities whose contributions to societal development were so often ignored historically. I think it’s imperative to try and rectify this by using dedicated resources and time towards initiatives like South Asian Heritage Month and Black History month. 


Find out more about South Asian Heritage Month.