Many would remember Debra Meyer as the SABC weather presenter, but what people may not know is that by the age of 29, she had already completed her Doctorate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
The Johannesburg native was born in the multi-racial town of Kliptown, in an area known as the ‘Grand’. She describes the area as a colourful place with many different cultural influences, but as apartheid intensified, the apartheid government decided to destroy the town and segregate its people. Prof. Meyer’s parents were then forced to move and they decided to settle in Elderado Park. Despite these setbacks and hardships, Prof Meyer believes that coming from the difficult circumstances of Elderado Park had made her stronger.
Being an inquisitive young child, she dreamt of becoming a scientist and worked at achieving that dream. She excelled at school and she was rewarded for her hard work with a bursary to study science at university. She completed her BSc in Biological Sciences and her Masters in Biochemistry, both at the Randse Afrikaanse University. She was then awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, which allowed her the opportunity to complete her Doctorate at the University of California, all before the age of 29. She has also completed modules in media strategy and academic leadership at the Harvard Business School and the University of Pretoria.
In addition to being a Professor of Biochemistry, Prof Meyer is currently the Executive Dean of Science at the University of Johannesburg and she sits on the board of several companies which include Naspers, Media24 and Orbis Africa. Before becoming dean, she was the Head of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Pretoria.
She also writes for scientific journals; newspapers and magazines, she was also a weather presenter on SABC 2, is a published poet, was a presenter of her own science television show, and she has won several awards in the field of science. Some of the awards she received include the 2004 NSTF/NRF young scientists award, the 2005 Academy of Sciences for the Developing World’s Promising Young Scientists award, and the 2010 NSTF/ NRF TW Kambule Senior Black Scientist Award. In 2007 Rapport and City Press recognised her as one of ten SA’s ‘Women of Prestige’ and in 2009, she was nominated for the African Union Women Scientist Award by the Department of Science and Technology.
She is a member of the South African Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Suid Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, the African Women in Science and Engineering, the International Women in Science Engineering, and the National Centre for Science and Civic Engagement.
Prof Meyer was also a visiting scientist at Harvard University’s Viral Immunology Department and at the University of California. She is also a board member of several non-profit organisations.
For those of you that want to know what Prof. Meyer does, the simple answer is that she basically focuses on finding a medication that will stop people from getting HIV/Aids. The more complicated answer is that she generally focuses on metabolomics for detecting HIV/AIDS biomarkers, metallodrug development and designing synthetic peptide vaccine components.
Her team published the first application of nuclear magnetic resonance metabolomics for the detection of HIV/AIDS-influenced metabolites and they developed inductively coupled plasma – atomic emission spectroscopy protocols for detecting the in vitro uptake of iron by mammalian cells. They also published on the first metal-based drug with simultaneous in vitro inhibitory activity against two HIV enzymes in and they were widely praised for their research involving the design and analysis of synthetic HIV vaccine.
Of her appointment to Dean, she says that it is just proof that hard work does pay off. She says that she is especially glad that it would prove to women of colour that there are no limits to what they can achieve, particularly in the field of science.
When she was appointed, she was asked how she would handle the additional leadership responsibilities and still be able to focus on her research. Her response was typical for someone with her level of confidence. She said that there are people who do get it right to manage all the additional responsibilities, and she would be one of those people. Becoming a Dean did not slow her down and she has published several papers since then.
She also has a deep passion for Afrikaans which she describes as the language of her mother and father, a language they spoke with perfection. She believes that less brown people speaks the language (switching to English) because they do not realise that this is a language created by them and is thus, their language. She also gives classes to educate people about the origins of Afrikaans and although it is aimed mainly at brown people, everybody is welcome to attend. She also believes that brown people should make an effort to research and reclaim their history.
Going forward, she aims to become the rector of the university, the highest rank that an academic can achieve. When asked why she wants to become Rector, being a supremely confident person, she answered, “Because I know I can do the job.”