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Bioscience to Post doctoral fellow South Africa I TCIM Careers

Name : Dr Thato Motlhalamme

Course/ job: Postdoctoral fellow at the South African Grape and Wine Research Institute

A levels/ equivalent: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Maths, English

Undergrad and postgrad degrees: I have an undergraduate degree in Complementary Medicine, Master degree in Medical Biosciences (both obtained from the University of the Western Cape, South Africa) and a PhD in Wine Biotechnology (Stellenbosch University, South Africa).

Favourite science fact: I really don't have a favourite science fact. I am fascinated by all the things we constantly learn about the world and the universe. Some things that may be science fact today could be disproved tomorrow.

Journey in 3 Words: Challenging, exciting and unpredictable

Briefly describe your role

I work as a Postdoctoral fellow in the Microbial Ecology group at the South African Grape and Wine Research Institute. A typical day for me is lab based where I teach graduate students in the lab various techniques such as management of microorganisms in bioreactors, isolating nucleic acid material from yeast cells and running experiments to analyse gene expression patterns. I write articles on the data we generate and also manage the lab.

What motivated you to pursue a career in science?

I have always been fascinated by biology. As a kid I spent many hours watching medical shows on TV and would pretend to be a doctor. Biology just made sense to me and I wanted to work in a space that involved biological sciences.

What are the best and worst parts of doing a phd?

The best part of my PhD was the constant learning. I love to challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone and this degree gave me plenty of opportunities to do that. This was also the source of some of the worst parts of a PhD. In the quest to find out how and why yeast produce melatonin, there were many failed experiments and data that did not make sense which was very frustrating. But in the end I discovered so many great qualities about myself that I had not known prior to the PhD.

What advice would you give your younger self

Believe more in your abilities. There is nothing you cannot achieve once you set your mind to it.

How do you feel the Science world has evolved throughout your career? ( what are some hard truths you have had to face?)

There are politics everywhere you go including science. The first hard truth I had to face was at the end of my undergraduate program when I realised that it would be difficult to practice as a Complementary Medicine healthcare practitioner because of the policies in the country at the time. There was resistance from the allopathic sector and government at the time to open up the healthcare sector to traditional and complementary healthcare practitioners. This forced me to look at other opportunities available to us at the time and in hindsight it was a blessing in disguise because I love research.

How do you feel careers in your field have evolved / where are they heading to?

I have an interdisciplinary background and that is a direct result of the changes in happening in all science fields. We are realising that in order to fully understand how systems work, we need the experts from different fields to work together. We get to learn from one another and I think that will open more opportunities for us as scientists.

Outside science how would you describe yourself?

I am a very energetic, positive, free spirited and fun loving person. My husband and I live in South Africa but our families are from Botswana and Zimbabwe. So in my down time I travel between the two countries visiting them. Spending time with family is how I recharge.

You have recently co-authored a book – what were the motivations behind the book and how did you balance the writing process alongside other commitments?

The book developed from numerous conversations I had with Evodia about the low representation of successful black female scientists in South African academic institutions. At that point I was in the middle of my PhD and had questions on how women like me built STEM careers in academia and industry. We then organised a small round table with other young black women in STEM to understand if the feelings I had were unique to me or shared by others. In this session, we asked the ladies what questions they would ask the female scientists they looked up to in their respective fields. That was the basis of the questions we asked the scientists featured in the book. We interviewed the women featured in the book, transcribed these interviews, and wrote the stories based on the information gathered in the interviews and internet searches. Once we were happy with the story, we sent it back to the scientist featured for final approval. I was a full time student at that point and most of this work was done in the evenings and every Saturday for the past 18 months. It hasn't been easy but what made it work was the passion we both had to make this book a reality. We chose to make it a fun, learning experience which helped keep us motivated I believe.


Connect with Dr Thato Motlhalamme

Twitter: @thatoym

Linkedin: Thato Motlhalamme

About holding the knife's edge : The Book Launch


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