My name is Timothy Macqueen, and I am a 29-year-old scientist/botanist who struggles with type 1 bipolar disorder. I have struggled with mental illness since it manifested itself when my father passed away in 2010. I excelled at varsity culminating with a Cum Laude for my Botany Honours degree, but I would have to face the bipolar and other challenges when I started my MSc in Botany.

I was excited to do my MSc. It was on using DNA to detect hybrid Proteas.  I love/hate the smell of mercaptoethanol in the morning. “That is very Apocalypse Now of you, Macqueen!” Most of the mercaptoethanol is taken up by the fume hood extractor fan but you can still smell a scent of it. I hate the smell because I know it is a dangerous substance to handle. I love the smell because I know while I am smelling it, I am in the middle of something amazing. That is the process of extracting plant DNA to be exact.

There were two memories that come to mind when I think of the Genetics Lab. Firstly, I reveled in the process of designing my own DNA primers. There is an indescribable joy that comes from within when something that you designed on the computer is delivered to yours or your supervisor’s office. Secondly is the mastering of the auto pipetting technique required for Molecular Biology. First you start off as a novice, a squire-of-sorts. Then you slowly work your way up to becoming a knight at it. My supervisor said that once you get the hang of it, auto pipetting is one of the calmest practices you can be part of. Almost like meditation. And he was right! I can’t describe why but there is some serenity you feel when you are repetitively pipetting liquids into test tubes that you have labelled as your own. I think it is because you feel in control. I controlled how much of each substance went into each vial. I enjoyed the perfection and the accuracy. I had to ensure that everything that I added accurately matched the protocol I followed or else I wouldn’t get the desired result in the end.

Molecular Lab work isn’t for everyone though. You must be meticulous, have an eye for detail and possess a somewhat analytical brain. I loved the lab. It was my home from home for two years of my life.

Image supplied by Timothy Macqueen.

A fire in June 2017, 6 months into my MSc destroyed all my samples at the Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve. I had to start from scratch with the seedlings that came up.

Into 2018 I was hospitalized twice for my bipolar disorder. But in two years 2018-2019 I completed my MSc Thesis. Mission accomplished. As my supervisor, Dr Alastair Potts, would describe it my MSc was “phoenix like” and he said that I faced many challenges that he had not seen before in a MSc. But I came out on top. I published an article in the South African Journal of Botany, printed my MSc, bound it and have it proudly displayed on my bookshelf.

Going from my MSc I was accepted into the WWF internship at ECPTA in East London which I completed with going again into hospital for bipolar because of the initial moving towns.

I worked from April 2021-March 2022 for the NSCF as a Specify Data migrator. I really enjoyed working with the fossil and helminth datasets. Unfortunately, I had to go into hospital again for depression. But I succeeded in my contract. Currently I’m unemployed and wondering what the future will hold…

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