Kimberleigh Ashley Tommy is currently a PhD candidate in Biological Anthropology at the Human Variation and Identification Research Unit (HVIRU) at the School of Anatomical Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand. Tommy is also the curator at the Maropeng and Sterkfontein Visitor’s Centre at the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site.
She was born and raised on the West Rand of Johannesburg, although her family is originally from Newclare. She grew up in Discovery and attended Discovery Primary School and high school at St Catherine’s Convent in Florida.
Tommy comes from a family of teachers, seamstresses, factory workers, bookkeepers and community activists. She says they instilled in her the value of hard work and the importance of community from a young age and always encouraged her to follow her dreams. She says she has always been interested in science and curious and attributes this to her family who “binge watched documentaries with me and let me make my own homemade experiments, no matter how messy they were”.
Role of teachers
Tommy also acknowledged her primary school teacher a, Mr Sibanyoni who, she says, not only nurtured her love of learning but also provided endless support. While studying human evolution in the final year of her under-graduate degree, Dr Job Kibii, the Kenyan born palaeontologist, took Tommy under his wings. Kibii is currently the curator of Palaeontology at the National Museums of Kenya. She says Kibii was the main reason why she studied palaeoanthropology particularly because he was her point of reference instead of all of the white faces she used to see on science documentaries.
Significance of science
Tommy believes science can assist us in understanding our past and using the information we gather to inform decisions that will impact our present and future.
“Science touches every aspect of our lives whether we realise it or not, from the toothpaste we use, the cars we drive, the nature we find calm in, the medicine we take and so much more. Mostly when we think of science it is in the traditional western sense and that is why it is important that we reimagine science and ground it in Indigenous Knowledge, which has predated western science and has the potential to teach us so much more,” says Tommy.
Tommy says women are still having it tough as the science sector is still predominantly white male. She says this is difficult for her as she has to wrestle with both racism and sexism particularly as a woman of colour.
“This was (and still is) traumatic, it impacted my view of academia and my mental health and there were many low points on this journey, it fuelled my impostor syndrome and my anxieties and made me feel isolated and afraid to speak my truth.”
But despite these unpleasant experiences, Tommy has been able to shine and won some awards in her academic career. These include:
- Being named as one of the Mail and Guardian 200 Young South Africans in Science and Technology in 2020
- Being named as one of the Inspiring Fifty South Africa 2020 winners by the Consulate of the Netherlands in South Africa
- Being named as one of the PhD awardees of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science South African National Young Talents Programme in 2020
- Being named as a Black Woman In Science (BWIS) South Africa Fellow in 2019
- Receiving a Distinction for my Masters of Science degree from the University of the Witwatersrand
- Being named as one of the Top 20 Postgraduate Writers by Science Today in 2017
- Serving as a National Geographic Umsuka Public Palaeoanthropology project member and facilitator and working with local community members within the Cradle Heritage Site.
- Writing for the Eons PBS channel where the content I scripted highlighted the African fossil record and its importance to understanding our past reached millions of people all over the world.
- Co-authoring two book chapters and publishing my first first-authored academic publication.
Tommy’s advice and professional message to future generations of women wanting to get into this field is that they should:
- Establish your support system. This is a difficult journey and you should not walk it alone.
- Choose your supervisors and mentors wisely, their support and your relationship is important to your success and wellbeing.
- Learn to say no. You are not obligated to be on every committee, or every initiative. These are often mentally and emotionally draining and take up a lot of your time.
- Don’t silence your voice or let ‘impostor syndrome’ convince you that it is not important. You matter; your perspectives matter and are valid.