Category Archives: Reflections 2022


by Petra Makua

The journey of moving to Cape Town from another province and another university happened so quickly. I don’t think it has sunk in yet that I’m a postgraduate student at UCT. I never saw myself changing universities to pursue a career in neuroscience. Honestly, I think I spent the first half of this year questioning my purpose and career path.

I could be getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start from the beginning.

Initially, I was excited to be studying a course related to the brain. I went into this thinking I would be pursuing a career in the clinical field, the practical stuff. Little did I know that postgraduate studies required so much reading! For someone who usually works alone, it meant I had to start engaging and communicating with people. To me, that felt like a nightmare. I must emphasize this once more; everything happened so fast! While trying to process this rude awakening, I also had to adapt to the new institution, make new friends, and always remember to carry a jacket with me even when it’s sunny outside because experiencing all four seasons in a day is normal in Cape Town.

I’m someone who prefers comfort and avoids stress, but in retrospect, this situation forced me to step out of my comfort zone. Through networking, I’ve met wonderful people who keep me motivated and are always teaching me new things. Moreover, I started attending workshops that have forced me to speak in public, and that alone has honed me as an individual. Reading journals provides so much satisfaction since you are constantly learning new things! I have also found a sense of comfort in doing lab work; I call it my “safe space.” Perhaps academia isn’t that bad after all.

Through all of this, I realised that sometimes all you need is a little push beyond your sanctuary for you to unleash your potential and grow as a person.

More Than What Meets an Eye

by Siphenathi Ntoba

Everyone is subject to challenging situations but those who trust in Almighty always rise like an edifice above them. This is how I live, and all life is spiritual and a mystery, but it is responsible for everyone to discover purpose in this life and walk worthy of it. This reflection communicates gratitude and positive mindset during troubling situations
experienced this year.

The best thing to do when you are face with diverse temptation find right people to talk to. As a student be able to talk one of your supervisors or else discern which supervisor can deal with your situation. Registration for 2022 academic year was an initial problem which happened for a month. This required me to constantly communicate with administration people through email from one person to another, and then I got academically registered. Finances were the biggest challenge, and that has contributed to my academic performance. However, during the month of June everything was in accordance with the Lord revealed that to me that time through His foreknowledge. I was so happy to see things fall into places irrespective of how my year began at UCT. This made my transitional period from undergraduate to honors program to be quite interesting and testing of character.

It was a pleasant experience to be in the laboratory (Lab) for me this year after COVID19 lockdown suffered me not a chance to be involved partially my undergraduate lab work and indeed this was amazing experience. This was really challenging at some point, but I finally won. The Lab manager was a nice and patient with each one of us, this re-assured us to be right student at the right place and well cared for. This kind of an atmosphere made it easy for us student propelled us for excellence regardless of lab challenges. Supervisors were amazing people who were always eager to assisting me in every way possible. I am grateful.

No pressure

by Tasneem Toefy

As many of you very well know, the period from the year 2020 up until now had been a real nightmare. While I won’t dwell on the dreaded p-word (if you aren’t thinking “pandemic”, then you’re my type of person), I would like to reflect on my experience academically from thereon.

My postgraduate journey had a rocky start. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Human anatomy and physiology (commonly known as “HUB” at the University of Cape Town), only HUB. Just one major, because I was too disinterested in anything else like Biochemistry or Genetics (no offense to those of you studying it now, I’m sure it’s great – for you). And as you can imagine, this created some pause to my then plans. You see, I had hopes of diving into the workforce after graduating, possibly interning at some medical laboratory or clinical company where I could wear a lab coat or scrubs and gain in some more practical experience. I mean, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with opting out of postgraduate studies; however, I’ve come to understand that here, in our lovely South Africa, there’s not much available to those in medical science who haven’t specialised. Having only an undergraduate degree, specifically in science, has become the equivalent of having a matric certificate (i.e., National Senior Certificate). Besides that, being in the midst of a pandemic and related lockdown reduced my chances of getting in anywhere to basically zero, as job opportunities decreased to remarkably low levels. And that’s how, in 2021, I found myself lying in bed every day roaming through shows on Netflix, wallowing in self-pity and wondering what I was going to do with my life. I eventually, after putting things into perspective once I remembered that there were people poverty-stricken or abused elsewhere, I accepted that I shouldn’t waste the opportunities I could have access to. And off to postgraduate studies I went, enrolling at UCT for an Honours in Biological anthropology in 2022 – the year of adaptation (you see what I did there? I just used some human variation jargon I learned this year). No, this programme was not a dream of mine, nor was it what I was expecting to go into when I toyed with the possibility of furthering my studies. It’s become more than that – I not only learnt more than I could have imagined, but also grew as a person.

I don’t have much else to elaborate on, nor do I have monumental words of assurance, but what I can leave you with is that what life has taught me lately is to be understanding of yourself. There isn’t a set way to live your life, so don’t pressure yourself to meet certain self-stipulated deadlines. It’s okay to not know what you’re doing sometimes; you’ll figure out what’s best for you and when the time’s right to do so. If life gives you lemons, there are many other things to make besides lemonade (just saying).

The beginning of postgraduate studies

by Kristen Sandys-Thomas

Honours is a super fun year! What I love most about it is that we are physically contributing to the body of science through our research projects and this is how it’s so different from undergrad studies. I think it’s really important to go into honours with a positive mindset and aim to work hard (during modules and the research component). The year goes really quickly so I think the best advice is to try and enjoy every component of the course as it is not a long and recognise that we are very privileged to be studying at the Health Science Faculty. You will meet a lot of really nice people in the course (your class mates, your supervisors, and professors). Don’t stress that we have transitioned to face-to-face (F2F) learning and F2F exams. F2F has been so much better than online learning and it helps you to feel more comfortable with the course, your supervisors and your peers. It’s also really nice to be on campus and see that campus as for the most of us it’s a new campus, and it’s nice meeting your professors in person rather than via a computer. Exams were also not bad this year even though they were F2F and I was super nervous as the last time I wrote a physical exam was in 2019 (3 years ago). Modules are intense as it’s only three weeks per module for course work and we write an assessment at the end of each module – this is great because it forces you keep up to date and not fall behind so that you are prepared for exam week.   

Don’t stress if you don’t get your project of choice – I guarantee you, whatever project you land up with you are going to meet some really awesome, intelligent people who are going to inspire you in one way or another. I came into honours having the expectation that I would not enjoy research. It took me a bit of time this year to start getting comfortable with research,  lab work, and reading lots of articles & getting familiar with my research field, but once you reach a level of confidence you begin to realise that the life of a researcher is rather nice. I plan to do my MSc next year, here at UCT, where we will look at next generation sequencing data of 2 twins who experienced an ACL rupture, and through the use of bioinformatic analysis we hope to underpin the genetics of ACL rupture or get closer to unravelling the genetics of ACL rupture.

Grateful for 2022

by Tayla Kebonte

Being a part of the honours Neuroscience & Physiology class of 2022 has been a great privilege. My curiosity about the brain and its mysterious workings has been nourished by lecturers and my peers. I particularly enjoyed the Advanced Cellular Neuroscience module – I felt that I was learning something completely new every day which was thrilling (though the complexity of what I was learning daunted me at times).

Initially, I started the year with the intention of taking up a research project that was clinically oriented but after a quick mental pep-talk I realised that I only have 1 year to be completely immersed in all-things-neuroscience. I reasoned that I would benefit from learning skills and techniques that I would not learn in medicine. So I sit here (several failed qPCRs and tissue cultures later) to say that I feel more equipped than ever to be a functional member of a lab.

I have enjoyed being a part of the O’Ryan lab – working with a group of patient, intelligent and hardworking women has urged me to be just the same. The contribution this lab has made to autism genetics is incredible! I am eager to see what the future holds for this group.

One particular skill that I am particularly grateful for is my newfound ability to critically read scientific papers. It is a priceless skill! So priceless that if the entire year consisted of reading and writing only, I would have benefitted greatly still.

All-in-all, taking a year out of medicine to do this was entirely worthwhile.

Defining my future clinician-scientist career on my own terms

by Asande Vilane

At the beginning of last year, myself and a number of my 3rd year MBChB peers enrolled into the Molecular Medicine program: an adjunct course which aims to give aspiring clinician-scientists a background in basic science knowledge and techniques. This journey has since taken us into the honors year, and has seen us undertake introductory research courses in fields such as Neuroscience and Physiology, Infectious Diseases and Immunology, Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Molecular Cell Biology. This experience, which has gifted us with experience both in the clinical and lab platforms, has prompted me to continuously revisit and redefine the term ‘clinician-scientist’.

From a distance, it’s easy to define what a clinician-scientist is: a person with training in both the clinical and science-based fields who combines their skills to conduct research in a way that relates to human health and disease. In my late high-school years, this concept seemed flawless. Yes, I wanted to be the person who had seen, firsthand, the clinical problems that I wanted to solve – and I believed was going to seamlessly transition from my patients to the bench every day with the glamour and flair of a reality-tv show main character (also why isn’t this already a show?). As I’ve grown (a little) older and have had the privilege of enrolling in the BMedScHons (infectious Diseases and Immunology) program, parts of my preconceptions have been both reinforced and shattered by my experiences.

Firstly (and I was actually asked this in a casual interview) – what’s the real need for a clinician-scientist? And why do I want to become one? While it’s true that we need people who can speak both languages to bridge the gap between science and medicine, thus driving the creation of valuable translational research, we also need to keep in mind that we have scientists… and we have doctors. And sometimes, with enough continued education, they can indeed speak each other’s language. So what exactly is the need for someone with an all-round training? Where does this person fit in the grand scheme of things – or what exactly is the problem that they are trying to fix? It becomes difficult to answer these questions without all the buzzwords.

Secondly – what is a clinician-scientist in the South African context? Unlike developed countries which have established MD PhD or MBChB PhD tracks which produce graduates that are quickly zapped up into biotech and big pharma – the idea of this joint training is still quite new in South Africa’s history. While there remains space for one to innovate in corporate medicine using these skills from training, one will have to face the inevitable question of how they will spend their time and their skills once they graduate. Are you going to specialize, and sacrifice the time you could have been using for research? See patients full time and treat your lab work as a fever dream? As a person who came into medicine fully convinced that I’d end up as a full-time basic scientist, this question becomes difficult to answer once you get your first taste of the clinical realm.

Lastly, why do I want to become a clinician-scientist? It’s no secret that medical students are notorious careerists – and being forced to truly reflect and ponder on this question while consciously removing that old high-school identity as an ‘achiever’ has been an interesting experience.

I can’t, however, explain this answer without talking about Angela Merkel. Now the former chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel has a PhD in quantum chemistry – but also succeeded in becoming a leader while campaigning under a conservative party. While I was already reading biotech articles at 4am way back when – Angela convinced me that being a leader and being a thinker and innovator are not and have never been in antithesis to each other. While my greatest aspiration remains to leave a positive impact on our society, I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that this has also been a journey in the exploration of self. Apart from trying to develop myself along the thinkers as leaders paradigm, being a clinician-scientist also seems to be allowing yourself to develop your career on your own terms. While it’s scary that this is a new South African phenomenon, and there’s no telling exactly how you’ll use your skills – it’s also warming to know that this journey is yours to define. That you don’t have to have all the answers just yet, and that it’s enough to follow an urge or a passion. That for now – it’s enough to be an experience experiencing experiences.

The only way I can describe my honours year is a rollercoaster: there have been moments where I’ve strolled into the Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine (aka the IDM) fully convinced that I’m where I’m supposed to be, and feeling refreshed by the change of pace from the medical program.. but there have also been days where, after over a month of repeating the same experiment, I wished I could just go see a patient and give them antibiotics and know that they’d be on the up and up three days from now. These experiences have all been part of the process, and have been instrumental in teaching me to experience things in the moment, to take a critical look at old decisions and preconceptions, and to allow myself to explore a little – regardless of how it will turn out.

Far from Home

by Precious Kunyenje

Listening to good girl by Lucky Dube with my father while he escorted me to the airport, is but the last memory I have from home. Where his words could not reach, music was the way he could explain what was in his heart. The mixed emotions he had, being proud of his child’s success for being admitted to the best university in Africa and the fear of letting the child go into the unknown was all I could understand from the song. We spoke less but we knew we would miss each other.

Looking back, it’s been almost a year now since we saw each other, and I miss my family. It has been quite an experience being far from home and living in Cape Town. While fear was certain, the excitement of being in a new school, a new city was amazing. I love the environment, the school, and the friends I have made along the way. Life has ups and downs, and I have had my bad days through this period. Academic stress, financial hardship, homesickness, and loneliness have been part of my life, but I am grateful to the UCT family, my friends, and my lecturers for their continuous support. Without them, it could have been a living hell staying in Cape Town.

Being away from home and from people, you used to see every day can be challenging. But sometimes to grow, we need to come out of our comfort zone and grab the opportunities provided to us by life. I am happy I took this opportunity to come to UCT and have this wonderful experience.

When you become the subject: how to deal with knowing too much

by Anonymous

This reflective piece could give you an additional 5% on your Assignment 2 mark. 5% is not a lot in the grand scheme of things, and yet I found myself ruffling my feathers, so to speak, scrambling for a topic to write about – seeing my classmates have already spread their wings, covering topics such as changing workloads, academic burnout, and the sheer excitement of taking part in studies that feel like they could be from science-fiction movies. Then I realized that I have a different experience that may not be unique but is certainly not commonly discussed: how to deal with knowing too much.

The science field is often seen as a cold an impersonal one, and sometimes it forgets that there are real people behind the sample ID numbers, however, the merit is that we can look at data more objectively as we are not personally affected by the outcome. Whether the experiment fails, or if it turns out to be a flying success, it makes no greater personal difference than moving on or trying again. But now I ask you, what happens when you start seeing yourself, or someone you know in those little numbers?

No one prepares you for the day when you have to present a figure from a clinical trial paper for a cancer treatment, when a family member has just passed away from the exact cancer a new developmental drug is being tested for, or the sadness that comes when you start thinking about all the people who could have lived had this been discovered just a few months earlier. Words fail me when I try to describe what it feels when you’re discussing the merits of a scientific paper with your peers, where one treatment is clearly more effective than another, and the consequent tailspin you get stuck in when you start to doubt your doctor’s decisions regarding your course of treatment – the power that critical thinking holds is a mighty one, and essentially that is what this year is about.

Your honours year is designed to test you and mould you into the future of the scientific world. We are taught how to read critically, how to design experiments and present papers. We are taught how to pipette properly, how to draw graphs and engage with communities – how to translate our research in a way that will allow someone outside our field to understand – and yet we are not taught how to cope with the personal consequences of our research.

For those of you who have resonated with the article and read to the end hoping to see what advice I have, you are not alone. I have more questions than answers, but what I’ve gathered so far is that we should strive to be more like the old Greek figure, Daedalus, who crafted wings of feathers and wax to escape imprisonment. The modern-day equivalent would be to lean into your personal connection to a specific area and let your emotions serve as a source of motivation to honour the field by staying objective, since biased research won’t help anyone in the grand scheme of things. However, and there is a very fine line between passion and obsession and we should try our best not to let our emotions lead us too far astray or we run the risk of following Icarus, who flew too close to the sun.

Discovering bioinformatics

by Alice Piller

As an undergraduate in Genetics and Statistics, I felt utterly torn between the biological side and the “mathsy”, analytical side of science. Of course, that was a naïve view on science as its fields are not discrete but intertwined. I stumbled across a strange new word in my first year of studying from my older sister (who also studied Genetics) – “Bioinformatics” – which stuck with me until my Honours application.

Bioinformatics seemed like the perfect marriage between all my interests. I describe it as the intersection between genetics, computer science and statistics. I was accepted to an Honours in Bioinformatics at UCT and was excited to combine all my interests and skills in one application.

The course was almost entirely online, which I was initially apprehensive about. The bed-to-desk rotation of the last two years of my undergraduate degree was tough, so I was not looking forward to another year of that cycle. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy it this year either. I felt that an important part of university was missing – the lack of engagement with my lecturers and peers. Luckily, there were some in-person aspects, so this year was a huge improvement from the previous two years.

What I found most satisfying about my degree in Bioinformatics is the feeling of being truly interested in a topic and motivated by career options and prospects of the field. I have found working on my thesis highly stimulating and the lectures opened me up to a whole new ecosystem of research. I cannot wait to see where this field takes me!

Grateful for 2021

by Zea Leon

When reflecting on the year 2021, I feel a sense of accomplishment and gratitude. I am grateful for the space I find myself in today and realize that I am exactly where I want to be at this stage in life. Sometimes I find myself dreaming too small, selling myself short, and subconsciously limiting myself. I have always been a persistent person, and when things do not go the way I expect them to, it discourages any other big pursuits. I tend to forget to celebrate small victories and allow it to be overshadowed by the things I have fallen short on.

Transitioning to a different university has not gone as seamlessly as expected. The difference in teaching style has helped me gain a more independent form of learning and encouraged self-assurance. It has allowed me the freedom and responsibility of working at my own pace, but also makes the breakthroughs so much more rewarding. Since 95% of classes were still being taught online, adjusting to a 2/3-hour online lecture was quite challenging and it was also much harder to form relationships as a “first year” UCT student, but I have been fortunate enough to build amazing friendships none-the-less.

Unfortunately, this year has not been the easiest one, sometimes mentally and physically draining, and I would re-do another 2021 in a heartbeat, but I have learnt to focus more on the small victories and not limit myself. I have learnt the importance of adaptability and finding comfort in solitude.

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