Nokukhanya Thembane (31) already knew while at primary school that when she grows up she wanted to serve the public. And by the look of things, her dream has been fulfilled.
Mitigating contemporary diseases
Born in Kranskop, Ekhatha in KwaZulu-Natal, Thembane is the rising academic researcher and board-certified medical laboratory scientist. She is also a Doctoral candidate in Medical Biochemistry at UKZN. Her research interests include traditional knowledge systems (medicinal plants) and their application in managing and mitigating contemporary diseases such as diabetes. This involves investigating the synergistic anti-diabetic effect of Sutherland frutescent (cancer bush) and psidium guajava (guava).
“Growing up, I was always a curious child, always filled with wonder and enthusiasm. Although at the early primary school age, I did not necessarily think or know I’d be a medical scientist in future – I always knew I will end up in public service,” says Thembane. She sings praises for her late grandmother Nomalanga Sphiwe Zungu, whom she says was a major inspiration for her to achieve her current academic successes.
String of qualifications
She boasts a long list of qualifications and these include:
- PhD Candidate * Clinical Chemistry (UKZN), PGDip
- Educational Management (MANCOSA) cum laude
- MTech Biomedical Technology (TUT) cum laude
- MBA (Regent), BTech (MUT) cum laude,
- NDip Medical Technology (MUT) ; ORCID https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9146-3809
Responding to global health challenges
As a medical laboratory scientist, Thembane’s role is to assist in disease diagnosis, monitoring and treatment. She says medical laboratory scientists must have strong scientific knowledge, reasoning ability, and empathy for humanity so that they can provide analytical and diagnostic services. In addition, says Thembane, laboratory scientists conduct medical science research in response to global health challenges. “This profession produces competent graduates who apply scientific; analytical principles in the field of medical laboratory science (MLS) and perform laboratory operations in clinical diagnostic laboratories and related fields in accordance with the Health Professions Council of South Africa’s statutory requirements,” says Thembane.
Strengthening STEMi programmes
Furthermore, she says, the MLS integrates laboratory test results with pathophysiological conditions and conduct research that is grounded on a key competency of the elected disciplines and founded on sound scientific principles. The development and application of research skills is a distinguishing feature of medical laboratory science. Thembane says African countries should strengthening and harness STEMi programmes to address a range of serious socio-economic challenges and developmental backlogs.
“The emergence of novel scientific innovations and the global change in technology can improve economic, education and infrastructure and general societal development of our nation. For instance, the health sector, scientific research informs product development such as drug discovery for our curative healthcare for prevention and management of diseases that have posed a formidable public health challenge,” says Thembane. She says knowledge synthesis and application of science and technology are pivotal for sustainable development and therefore is important that South Africa builds capacity and invests in training the next generations for maximum benefit from science and technology.
Fewer women in STEMi
Thembane believes that even though something is being done to increase the number of women in science and technology fields, she feels this is inadequate judging by the current STEMi related subjects from learners leaving high school. Says Thembane: “The issue of STEMi requires educational leaders and managers, curriculum specialists, educationists, and various stakeholders to consider curriculum redesign and alignment to the sustainable development goals for from the formative years of schooling.”
She says numeracy competencies in basic education should be refined as this will help cultivate the preferred learner input in high-school. Eventually, this will feed to institutions of higher education, she reckons. Equally important, says Thembane, is an emergency need to improve teacher training and education as this has a direct impact on their pedagogical practice. “Appropriately trained STEMi teacher will improve science education ultimately the learner interest and outcomes STEMi related subjects nationally,” she adds.
Increasing numbers of girls in STEMi
She stressed the importance of boosting confidence and successful participation of women and the girl learner in STEMi in the country. But to achieve this, she says, firstly it is important to dispel the stereotypes that maths and science are subjects reserved for their male counterparts. Secondly, the she suggests the implementation of the following strategies:
- active parental participation and support from the formative years of basic numeracy skills, continuous assessments
- opportunities for revision
- skills upgrade and continuous development and workshops for teacher
- sufficient resources allocation for effective teaching and learning and appropriate career guidance and mentorship exposure opportunities.
Advice to budding female professionals
Her tips to young females who aspire to pursue the STEMi field is that they should be aware that women in the sector face unique barriers such as stereotypes, unequal pay, and general and under-representation. “Dare to push back against the barriers, dispel the external and internal stereotypes and beliefs about your competencies in STEMi, take opportunities to improve yourself, work with passion and diligence. And remember you matter, and your dreams are valid,” concludes Thembane.