Her laugh is contagious and her smile, warm and captivating. She is one of Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans of 2017 and she chats to us about her endeavors as a female scientist overcoming financial exclusion and obtaining her PhD.
Thirty-year-old Thandiswa Ngcungcu shows how women are pioneering in science. Ngcungcu graduated with a PhD in Health sciences human genetics in July. Not only has she managed to lead the ground-breaking research about a genetic mutation responsible for a rare skin disease in Afrikaners, but has also made it onto Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans of 2017. Ngcungcu talks about her experience as a Wits science student and lecturer. Born and raised in Orange Farm, she shares how she overcame financial obstacles while studying.
Tell us a bit more about your research on genetic mutation which received acclaimed praise.
“When I was doing my Masters, I did an internship at Novartis and I got to sequence a region on chromosome 8 which had previously been associated with the disease. But that was for that internship and I thought that I was done with it but the data was not analysed and since I wanted to do a PhD and that data was already available I chose to do that as a PhD, and it has a very interesting scientific question.
Having graduated with four degrees from Wits and then joining the division of Human Genetics as a lecturer, what is one thing that kept you going?
“I always knew what I wanted and I worked hard to get there, it wasn’t easy. There were challenges, a lot of them. Especially financial ones. But I kept going. And I love science and I love human genetics. So having to work on my project made me want to come to work even on winter days which is not the easiest but it made me want to do it.”
What are some of the challenges you have faced as a Wits student?
“I was raised by a single parent and she tried very hard. There was a time when I hadn’t paid up because Wits has a rule that you have to pay all your fees by the end of March. I hadn’t done that. And at the time they would still cut off your student card so I couldn’t get into the libraries. I could barely get into the university. I think for me that was one of the major struggles I went through when I was in undergrad. Having to go through that, how can you study if you can’t go into the library? How do you get that degree if you don’t have access to the libraries? I think that’s a common struggle for a lot of Wits students even now and that’s something that we really need to work on.”
Out of all that you have achieved, what are you most proud of?
“I have to say I really enjoyed wearing the red gown on the fifth of July. I had been so jealous of those people during my numerous graduations in my black gown. I was like ‘one day is one day and that’s going to be me’. For me it was such a big achievement and I was super proud of myself and I really loved that gown. I didn’t want to take it off. I looked good in red (she chuckles)”
Going forward what are some of the things you would like to achieve?
“I think I would want to train as many students because I had a great mentor who had been my supervisor since I was in honours. I want to be that person for someone else, hopefully for a number of students. We need black students and we need female students in science. We don’t have a lot of those. So I would like to contribute in changing that”
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
“I wouldn’t get so nervous, I get nervous about a lot of things, things like this interview. I’d love to be more comfortable in social situations I guess, that’s not my strongest attribute but I try.”
What do people assume about you?
“I hear that I’m a scary person. I’m not. I can’t help the way I look. I am actually a super nice person. I am approachable even if people think that I am not approachable. It’s not true. I’m not very sporty but I love pool and I’m very good at it. So I’m looking for challenges.”
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