NRF 25 years: Dr Aayesha Kholvadia

NRF 25 years: Dr Aayesha Kholvadia

This year, the NRF is celebrating a major milestone in our history as we commemorate 25 years of Research, Innovation, Impact and Partnerships. It gives us great joy to share the accomplishments and impact of the many students and researchers we have supported during various stages of their careers. We thank all participants for submitting their stories and hope that you enjoy reading about their journey with the NRF.

Dr Aayesha Kholvadia isa Senior Lecturer and the Head of Department: Human Movement Science in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Nelson Mandela University. She received NRF funding for her Master’s and PhD studies, as well as two NRF Thuthuka grants.

How did your journey start?

Growing up on a farm in Carletonville, my childhood was anything but typical. Despite the simplicity of farm life, my visits to my uncle’s surgery sparked an early interest in healthcare. I would help clean patients’ wounds or hold a tray during a procedure, fascinated by the healing process. Sometimes, I would act as a receptionist, listening to people’s stories, and observing how my uncle’s work impacted lives. My passion for health deepened when a family member was struck by lightning. Visiting them after school and witnessing the physiotherapist work wonders with rehabilitation cemented my desire to pursue a career in the field. During my high school years, my family moved from Gauteng to Port Elizabeth, where I completed my schooling.

When the time came to apply for tertiary education, my parents supported me but expressed reservations about me living alone in another city due to cultural and religious concerns. The University of Port Elizabeth open day proved fortuitous as they found a perfect fit for me in the field of biokinetics, a term I had not heard before but eagerly embraced. I applied and was accepted, marking the beginning of my academic journey. Joining the department, I found myself in a field that was both new and novel to me, especially as a young Muslim female of colour. In the early 2000s, I was one of only two people of colour in the qualification and the sole female. Nevertheless, I grew and thrived in this environment, finding it to be a second home where I could explore my passion for health and wellness.

After completing my undergraduate studies, I continued my education with a Master’s degree, delving into the use of whole-body vibration therapy as a tool for improved health outcomes. This innovative work earned me support from the National Research Foundation (NRF), marking a significant milestone in my career.

Although I always envisioned myself in the profession of health and wellness promotion, I never imagined that my path would lead me to academia. However, my journey has been a fulfilling one, blending my passion for helping others with my interest in the latest technologies and methods to improve health outcomes. Today, I am proud to be part of a profession that allows me to make a tangible impact on people’s lives.

How has your affiliation with the NRF impacted your studies/career?

Receiving NRF funding during my Master’s year was pivotal in shaping my academic journey. Coming from a family with limited financial means, the funding allowed me to pursue my studies without the added burden of tuition fees and research costs. As the eldest of three children, I was aware of the financial constraints my family faced, and the NRF funding provided a vital opportunity for me to continue my education. This support not only enabled me to complete my Master’s degree but also contributed to writing my first peer-reviewed publication. 

The funding had a profound impact on my personal life as well. With the ability to purchase a laptop, I was seen as a role model by my siblings, and our home was transformed into a place of learning and growth. We no longer had to rely on libraries or internet cafes, which allowed us to work efficiently from home. This experience sparked a strong interest in academia and research, which might not have been possible without NRF support.

After completing my Master’s degree and working in private practice, I got married and moved to Johannesburg where I continued practising privately. However, my drive for more knowledge and advancement led me to pursue a PhD at Wits University. During my final two years of the PhD, I received NRF funding once again, which played a critical role in supporting my tuition and research costs. My PhD research focused on using photobiomodulation therapy to manage conditions such as osteoarthritis. The NRF funding enabled me to present my research at both national and international conferences, gaining valuable exposure and networking opportunities.

In 2019, I returned to my alma mater as a lecturer and applied for NRF Thutuka funding in 2020, which I was awarded for three years (2021-2023). This grant allowed me to support postgraduate students, resulting in the graduation of two Master’s students, presenting research at national and international conferences, and publishing three peer-reviewed articles. My second Thutuka funding application (for 2024) also enabled me to explore the disparities between preventative and allied healthcare measures in the public and private sectors. This led me to focus my research on the impact of collaborative patient care, especially in disadvantaged communities. This focus encourages me to apply my discipline knowledge, aimed at developing biokinetics and collaborative patient-centred care within the public healthcare system.

Currently, I supervise 11 Master’s and nine PhD students in these research fields. The support from NRF has been instrumental in achieving these milestones and has allowed me to make a meaningful impact in the field of biokinetics and healthcare research.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

Currently, my work revolves around the field of biokinetics and the exploration of collaborative patient-centred care, particularly within the context of rehabilitation medicine and public health. My research focuses on using innovative therapies and methods to improve health outcomes for patients, with an emphasis on integrating advanced technologies and collaborative practices into healthcare.

A significant part of my day involves supervising postgraduate students in Master’s and PhD programs. I am guiding their research projects, which are often centred around improving preventative and allied healthcare measures in both the public and private sectors. My research group is dedicated to exploring the disparities in healthcare access and outcomes between different population groups, with the goal of developing sustainable solutions to bridge these gaps.

One area of expertise that I have cultivated is photobiomodulation therapy, particularly its applications in managing conditions such as osteoarthritis. Through NRF funding and support, I have had the opportunity to present my findings at national and international conferences, broadening my perspective and engaging with experts in the field. 

In addition, my work includes investigating the potential of whole-body vibration therapy and other innovative treatment modalities to enhance patient recovery and overall well-being. My passion for advancing the field of biokinetics and rehabilitation medicine is rooted in my desire to improve the quality of life for patients and contribute to the growing body of research in these areas.

Why is your work/studies important?

My work in biokinetics and collaborative patient-centred care holds significant importance due to its potential to transform and sustain healthcare approaches both in South Africa and globally. My focus on innovative therapies and integrated healthcare practices aims to improve health outcomes and quality of life for patients, particularly in the areas of rehabilitation medicine and preventative care. By exploring advanced treatment modalities such as photobiomodulation therapy and whole-body vibration therapy, my research offers new pathways to manage chronic conditions. These approaches not only improve patient recovery but also provide cost-effective solutions that can be implemented within the existing healthcare systems.

One of the central goals of my work is to address disparities in healthcare access and outcomes, especially between the public and private sectors. By developing equitable healthcare measures, I strive to ensure that all individuals, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can receive quality care and support. This focus on equitable care is crucial for South Africa, where disparities in access to healthcare services persist. Through mentoring postgraduate students and conducting research, I am also contributing to the development of future healthcare professionals and researchers. This sustained impact can help drive progress and innovation within the field, ultimately leading to improved healthcare delivery and patient outcomes across the country and beyond.

My work’s transformative and patient-centred approach emphasizes holistic care and collaborative practices, fostering better communication and cooperation among healthcare providers. This model can lead to more personalized and effective treatment plans, ensuring patients receive the most appropriate care for their unique needs. Ultimately, my research has the potential to enhance the overall health and well-being of South African communities and to offer scalable solutions that can be applied worldwide. By advocating for patient-centred care and equitable access to healthcare, I aim to make a lasting impact on the lives of individuals and the healthcare system as a whole. Through these efforts, I hope to contribute to a healthier, more equitable society.

What are some of your proudest academic achievements?

Completing my degree; completing my Master’s in two years (first member of my family to have successfully completed PG studies), and obtaining my PhD.  I always wanted to boast the Dr title.  Further, in 2023, I received the ASAIPA Healthcare Leadership Award in recognition of the work done in the field. 

The rights to this article (content and images) are reserved by the National Research Foundation of South Africa. This work is licenced under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 DEED) license: this implies that the article may be republished (shared) on other websites, but the article may not be altered or built upon in any way. Credit must be given to the National Research Foundation and a link provided back to the original article.

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