NRF 25 years: Prof Pragashnie Govender

NRF 25 years: Prof Pragashnie Govender

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 that we have supported during various stages of their careers. We thank all participants for submitting their stories and we hope that you enjoy reading about their journey with the NRF.

Professor Pragashnie Govender is a Full Professor in the Discipline of Occupational Therapy and holds a fractional position as the Head (Academic Leader) of Research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Prof Govender has received two NRF Research Excellence Awards; NRF Thuthuka funding; and an NRF Y-rating. She is currently awaiting the outcome of her latest NRF Rating.

How did your journey start?

I am a first-generation graduate of my family. My origins are from a previously marginalised and impoverished background. I lived the first 16 years of my life in apartheid South Africa in a family with low socio-economic status and limited access to formal education. I was raised by an illiterate grandmother and my mother who worked tirelessly to support my older sister and me. I was fortunate, together with these two strong women in my life, to have an amazing young uncle and aunt who guided my path to tertiary studies, opening new possibilities. I was fortunate to have received a small bursary from a rotary club in my first year, NSFAS funding and worked on weekends to complete undergraduate studies in the field of occupational therapy. Occupational therapy, a largely unknown field, was attractive to me when I had the privilege of watching the impact of this profession on young children with disabilities. I decided this would be my path.

I applied and recall attending an interview – highly anxious having been exposed to this new world and diverse panel that was a “new experience”. Twenty students per year were admitted into the OT Programme at UKZN (then the University of Durban Westville) and I was number 23 – placed on a waiting list. My dreams shattered. I opted for my second choice and began a BSc degree only to be called five weeks later about a space that was available in the programme as three students had dropped out to pursue alternative degrees. This was my opportunity! I joined a class that had already established rapport and quickly had to transition and play catch up. I completed my undergraduate degree, graduating as the top student,and went on to the world of work to establish a professional career and as the primary breadwinner of my family.  

Having worked in the public and private health sectors, I entered academia as a tutor. I existed in a community where one academic credentialed at PhD level retired soon after, leaving the team with limited access to discipline-specific role models, mentorship and guidance. Although a challenge, this also inspired me to carve a unique identity within academia. As the youngest in my team for a large portion of my career, I was intrinsically driven to develop competence in teaching and was determined in my research endeavours. I graduated with a Master’s in 2012 and a PhD in 2016 and advanced up the ranks from tutor to Senior Tutor, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor and finally Full Professor in 2023. Within seven years post-PhD, I progressed from Lecturer to Full Professor.

I was also successfully appointed into a three-year fractional position as the Academic Leader of Research for the School of Health Sciences (SHS), comprising eight professional disciplines in 2018. My primary role was to provide strategic leadership in research-related aspects within a multidisciplinary school. I went on to complete an 18-month Fellowship in Health Professions Education (affiliated with the FAIMER Institute) and completed a postgraduate diploma in Health Professions Education and Leadership in 2022. In 2024, I was once more successful in being appointed to a fractional position as the Academic Leader of Research for the SHS.

Beyond academia, I currently exist in a stable family unit, enacting various roles (wife, mother, daughter and sister). These multiple roles have inextricably shaped my professional identity and my quest for success in a competitive higher education setting.

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

My “relationship” with the NRF began in 2014 when I was fortunate to have received two years of funding within the Thuthuka PhD Track. I was blessed to have met my husband and also wed in 2014. The funding received assisted in my PhD journey in which I was able to use the funds to ensure success in the study, completed in 3.5 years. I was also able to present my work internationally which allowed me to find ways to communicate science to appropriate audiences and an opportunity to actually experience travel outside of South Africa, something that was only a dream and certainly would have not been possible without funding. The experiences were overwhelming and prompted me to work to my optimal to ensure that I maintained a level of competence for future opportunities.

In 2016, I was nominated and awarded an NRF Research Excellence Award for Next Generation Researchers. I recall how important I felt on that day – my husband accompanied me and we were overwhelmed to be given a seat amongst some of the most amazing researchers in our country; hearing the conversations of A-rated researchers; and being in absolute awe. I recall a brief conversation with the likes of Prof Bongani Mayosi, someone I had held in high esteem as a role model; eavesdropping on conversations across the table from Prof Lee Berger on his amazing research endeavours… it was a night to remember! The radio interview brought my mum to tears, and hearing the gems from the researchers who have paved amazing paths for future researchers left me awestruck! I was truly inspired.

In 2018, I took the plunge to apply for an NRF rating and was successful as a Y-rated researcher. The initial funding provided allowed me to initiate smaller studies and to begin to work more strongly in my niche. I was also fortunate to have been a runner-up in the South African Women in Science Awards (distinguished young woman category). I do believe that the support of the NRF assisted in my journey towards this achievement.

In 2020, I competed for the funding call for Y-rated researchers and was successful with a Research Development Grant (two years) which also assisted in me being able to run my first small cohort of postgraduate supervision. I was able to use the funds to once more initiate a project that would assist in developing not only myself but other candidates in the process. I was also a finalist in the NSTF Science Awards in the Emerging Career Researcher Category.

In 2021, I was once again nominated for an NRF award and received the NRF Research Excellence Award for Early Career Researcher (Life Sciences). I was grateful to be a recipient of two NRF Awards in my career which really was a very humbling experience. I once more reflected on my journey at that point and, in a reflexive stance, I acknowledged again with conviction my responsibility to the next generation of scholars.

In 2023, I re-applied for NRF Rating and am currently awaiting the outcome.

Without a doubt, the NRF has been instrumental to my path, from PhD to Full Professor in under 10 years. Coupled with strong values around integrity, commitment and perseverance, I am truly humbled at being able to achieve this. I am the first Full Professor in the history of my discipline at UKZN, which has also paved the way for future scholars.  It is not often that opportunities are afforded to emerging researchers, and the NRF, through the multiple funding streams, has made it possible for an individual like myself to reach heights in my professional career that I never thought possible.

I am indeed grateful.

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

As a clinician, the challenge was encountering children who entered the health and educational system with developmental and other challenges that could have been identified and managed earlier with possibly more effective outcomes. As a result, I have worked to develop projects for early detection, including more suitable and relevant assessments, and developing interventions that may be relevant for both the child and their caregivers.

Given the vastness of the field, I have worked within the constraints of resources that are available to ensure utility and context-specific practice to ensure uptake of these on the ground. A summary of the research completed in the last eight years thus reveals work in multiple streams within the paediatric field and has had implications for practice in terms of assessment and interventions, as well as policy and advocacy. A number of these studies were borne out of necessity at the time.

In developing my niche, I embrace formative years as critical for nurturing and maximising developmental potential. As a practitioner and researcher, I am interested in the early detection of adverse outcomes in children for early intervention so that their potential may be optimised through relevant and timely interventions. In the diverse and complex environments of South Africa, the need for appropriate measures to identify and follow up with children in the early stages of development is essential to ensure that they thrive, have a good quality of life, and become contributors to society.

Why is your work/studies important?

The studies are entered practically (pragmatically) as a practitioner and researcher facing real-life issues. So, the questions posed are actual clinical questions and gaps, concerns that require the best possible solutions. I thus consider both propositional (knowledge from available literature) and non-propositional (knowledge of practitioners) as being valuable. Hence, the studies developed embrace both these types of knowledge and merging these are done using an array of available methodological options.

The benefit of doing this also allows for stakeholder uptake in that individuals who are seen to contribute to the process may be more likely to adopt such processes. As such my standpoint, my research practice is not based on prior reasoning – the exploration using qualitative methods allows for the deeper exploration at times to unpack the challenges and interventions aimed at moving practitioners towards the desire for mastery and practice that is evidence-based and contextually relevant. The environmental demands etc. are negotiated in the planning of these studies and therefore the outputs become relevant for the low-resourced contexts in which we often find ourselves within the public sectors of the country, especially health and education.

In the process of undertaking this work, I am starting to embrace my advocacy role in ensuring that the issues on the ground are raised for more relevant service delivery. I inevitably take that back to the academy in developing graduates that are fit for purpose.

I endeavour to ensure that the work contributes to the populations served and colleagues in the field (multidisciplinary teams), as well as to context-specific and context-driven curricula that are dynamic enough to influence practice on the ground in some direct and indirect ways.

What are some of your proudest academic achievements?

  • Two NRF Research Excellence Awards
  • NRF Rating
  • Runner-up at South African Women in Science Awards
  • Twice finalist in NSTF-South-32 Awards
  • 97 Peer-Reviewed Outputs (93 publications; four book chapters)
  • 60 Conference Presentations (to national and international audiences)
  • Being appointed in a fractional position of Academic Leader: Research for the School of Health Sciences in two cycles (2018-2020 and 2024-current)
  • Becoming a Full Professor before 45 in a health profession/field with clinical practice

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