Zakithi Mkhize is part of the wider global team of researchers who are feverishly searching for HIV cure. She is currently a full-time doctoral fellow at the HIV Pathogenesis Program (HPP) and sub-Saharan African network of HIV/TB research excellence (SANTHE). She says greater part of her life involves a lot of laboratory-based research as they look for the HIV cure research.
But the Durban-born Mkhize says she only started to get interested in science subjects during her early high school days, particularly life sciences and physical sciences. She says at the time the only profession she could relate science to was becoming a doctor. But she realised when growing up that the profession she wanted to pursue was actually medical science.
Importance of education
Even when she enrolled with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) for Bachelor of Science degree she didn’t know what exactly scientists do, she says. “I just thought well I like science and I’m good at it so let me go for it,” Ms Mkhize says. She says her curiosity and the high premium her family places on education inspired her to forge ahead.
Changing the face of science
The first thing that struck Ms Mkhize when she arrived at the UKZN, she says, was not seeing many black woman scientists throughout her career. And this motivated her to work hard and change the entire face of the science field. “There are black women scientists who have inspired me along the way and still inspire me today including the mentors I have crossed paths with,” she says.
Thinking out of the box
Ms Mkhize says her job entails performing experiments in the laboratory, troubleshoot them when they don’t work and then analyse the results she obtains from those experiments. She then writes report and presents her findings. She says her job also requires her to keep abreast with developments and latest information related to her research. “You have to keep up, so reading also plays a huge part in this. You also have to be a little bit creative, think out of the box and apply what you have learnt to your research,” she adds.
Ms Mkhize is a consummate science communicator and has been rewarded for this. For instance, in 2021 she was the regional winner of ‘FameLab 2021’, which put her in the National Top 10. In the same year she won the three (3) minute PhD thesis competition; a year before that she was an ‘InspiringFifty’ winner which acknowledges prominent women in STEMi fields. In addition, she has received numerous scholarships throughout her postgraduate studies for both research and travel. These include:
- Presenting her research in Canada, Belgium and the US
- Undertaking two research visits as part of her PhD career in San Franciso, USA and currently she is in Rotterdam in the Netherlands and
- This year she is scheduled to present her research at the international AIDS 2022 conference.
Motivating youth to pursue science
Ms Mkhize is also passionate about science and young people as well as changing the face of science. To inspire young people and promote science, Ms Mkhize has created a YouTube channel called BlackGirlScientist – which at the time of writing – was just shy of two thousand subscribers and over 39 thousand views. “I created this channel not only to share my journey through science but to make the journey easier for the next generation of scientists. Also to motivate, encourage and inspire young people to pursue a career in science. I share and speak on important topics such as funding your postgraduate career, choosing a supervisor and the challenges black women face in the field,” says Ms Mkhize.
She also shares relevant topics such as doing an HIV home test including inviting other black women scientists to her channel to share their unique stories as well as give advice to young people. In addition, Ms Mkhize has been involved in science communication initiatives to increase awareness in the work that scientists do. “It is my dream to also get my NPO off the ground which will be geared toward assisting young people through their science studies,” she says.
Ms Mkhize says the answer to many of Africa’s problems lies in science and technology. And that to overcome them countries should harness STEMi by investing in young people. They should be provided with platforms and infrastructure, she says, to promote innovation to the problems faced by the continent. She says she does not believe enough is being done to encourage STEMi among young people, women in particular. “I believe in tweaking and nurturing young minds, preferably primary school learners, and encouraging them to not see science as a ‘hard’ subject or for white people,” says Ms Mkhize. She also believes in creating awareness to address and reduce the dropout rate among young black students who enrol for STEMi degrees.
Adopting futuristic approach
Ms Mkhize says: “We need to create awareness around pursuing a career in STEMi fields and how attainable it is. We need to highlight the various platforms which are currently available to support young people through these degrees.” She says Africa needs to adopt a futuristic approach to engage young people in STEM and warns that if this is not done “we will fall behind as the world moves forward”.