Sometimes a question can determine the course of a life.
Kaylan Reddy is a Stellenbosch University PhD student who has already garnered five awards for his work in academia and is respected among his peers. However, he recounts a long journey that seemingly started with a question.
‘I was always the kid who asked ‘But why?’, he said when he recalls how he hounded his parents for answers while growing up. Fortunately, Reddy’s parents had no shame in saying they did not know. They took him to the library to help find the answers to his questions.‘They are a big inspiration to me,’ he said.
In high school, he wanted to know what made us (humans) the way we are – from a biochemical perspective. Reddy was inquisitive and wanted to learn about the chemicals involved when he was feeling happy or sad or angry; what was creating those impulses. The question drove him to pursue biochemistry in an attempt to unravel the answers.
Reddy admits he is still trying to answer similar questions that interest him, more specifically he ponders about: ‘How we can manipulate the systems in our body that control anxiety and depression?’. His questions have brought him to the foot of an ancient plant – Sceletium, commonly known as Kanna or Kougoed.
Reddy’s study straddles the fields of phytochemistry and ethnobotany. He and Sceletium have been conjoined for the last three years and speaking about his work on the plant comes easy to him. ‘A big focus of my research is finding chemicals in Sceletium that can aid with anxiety and depression in a sustainable way,’ he said.
He explains that it will not likely be a once-off dose but rather a therapy to be integrated into your lifestyle. In addition, it will be intended for use in the (ethnobotanical) way in which it was utilised by the Bushmen and Khoikhoi hundreds if not thousands of years ago.
‘They did not isolate a compound and use it, they used the whole plant. And in the plant, there are probably chemicals that are acting on multiple parts of your brain, spine and central nervous system. Using a holistic approach like that has a greater effect I think. Our systems are working with thousands or hundreds of thousands of systems at the same time using an isolated chemical…that is the power of natural products and using the entire suite of chemicals,’ Reddy said.
Passionate about benefit sharing
Like many in South Africa, Reddy is the first generation in his family to study at a university and more than that, the first to be enrolled in a PhD programme – only a tiny percentage of youth in South Africa reach this pinnacle in academia.
He is almost reluctant to share how he came to choose a career in science and said that it sounds basic and is ‘not something inspirational.
‘There was a book that we had called First Words for South African Boys and Girls, and there was a picture in there of a little brown boy in a lab coat. So, having no representation – the representation that I had on television was Apoo and Rajesh from Isidingo – the book inspired me, Reddy said, adding that ‘I didn’t have any idea that someone like me could be like that.’
His humble beginnings inform the socio-economic aspects of his work on Sceletium. He is passionate about benefit sharing in favour of the indigenous communities who have used and continue to use Kougoed. He is also not afraid to speak out about how local communities are extorted and get taken advantage of. According to Reddy the best scenario would be to include communities and have them create their own plantations. In his section of the department’s greenhouse are dozens of Sceletium plants, with some in flower. Dressed in a white lab coat he explains why Sceletium is unique.
‘”If I take a cutting from the Karoo and I try to grow it here, its chemistry changes and it does not have the unique therapeutic chemistry…it almost goes to zero. So we need the knowledge and collaboration with local communities actually,’ he explained. A major highlight of his studies has been seeing Sceletium in its natural habitat. The plant does not look the same; the pictures that are in the textbooks do not capture how it grows out in the veld.
After his PhD Reddy would love to lecture and be a great one too. He is ready to meet the next generation of students who are asking ‘But why?’.
Kaylan’s MSc studies were funded by the Foundational Biodiversity Information Programme (FBIP). The FBIP is funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) under the Global Change Programme and is jointly managed by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).