NRF Women's Month 2022: Dr Dumile Gumede

NRF Women’s Month 2022: Dr Dumile Gumede

Women’s Month 2022 is celebrated under the theme of “Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights for an equal future” and links to the achievement of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5) of Gender Equality by 2030. The NRF is committed to supporting women to advance their careers and establish themselves as researchers and, to this end, has developed a range of funding instruments aimed at supporting emerging female researchers.

Dr Dumile Gumede is a lecturer and a social-behavioural researcher in the Centre for General Education at the Durban University of Technology (DUT). She is a former NRF Thuthuka* grantholder and is currently supported by the NRF’s Black Academics Advancement Programme (BAAP)**.

What impact did NRF funding have on your career?

From 2018 to 2020, I received the NRF Thuthuka grant to carry out my Doctoral studies in Health Promotion at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Apart from making it possible for me to cover the costs of data collection and research equipment, the NRF Thuthuka grant helped me to present my work at both local and international conferences, e.g. the 2nd International Conference on HIV & Adolescence (Cape Town); the 20th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (Rwanda), and 16th Annual Public Health Conference (South Africa), while establishing global academic networks and acquiring presenting skills and experience with budget management. Strong networks that were established during the conferences resulted in a journal article based on my doctoral work that I published in 2019 as a first author through the BMC Medical Ethics under the mentorship of Prof Janet Seeley from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

In 2020, I utilised the grant to host a visiting scholar at DUT who contributed to strengthening my Doctoral work and capacity-building that benefited the entire DUT community. She was also very instrumental in guiding my NRF BAAP (Post-PhD) grant application which I was awarded from 2022 to 2023.

With space and time to focus on research that the BAAP grant has afforded me, I have been able to submit four manuscripts for publication in peer-reviewed journals between February and July 2022; presented at the 7th Annual SANRC First-Year Experience Conference in Cape Town; and will be travelling to Auburn University (US) as a visiting scholar in September 2022 under the host of Prof Diana Samek to work closely with her on research related to college experiences and self-care for students.

The NRF Thuthuka grant played a significant role in the time taken to complete my Doctoral degree; contributed to my research productivity; enhanced the employability skills that gave me an edge in the job market in and outside of academia; and provided me with the credentials needed to be awarded the BAAP grant to transition to research independence.

Women like myself, who come from marginalised backgrounds, would never be able to afford opportunities to shift boundaries and further their research careers if it were not for the NRF.

What has been your study/career journey: how did you end up where you are today?

I completed matric at Nkosana High School in Mtubatuba, a rural school where my father built its first classroom as a donation to community-building.  Thereafter, in 1994, I got a study loan to study for a Bachelor’s degree in Science at UKZN. Unfortunately, in our higher education system, individual and structural barriers exist that prohibit students from achieving their dreams. I would like to think that I did not have the agency to break those barriers. Being at the university was sometimes quite overwhelming and I often struggled with my identity as a university student. Eventually, I dropped out of my studies due to academic exclusion for failure to meet minimum academic performance expectations. This had detrimental effects on my well-being and self-concept.

Fortunately, a few years later in 1998, I got employed as a fieldworker at the former Africa Centre for Population Health in Mtubatuba. My job assisted me in repaying the study loan for UKZN and to support my family. While working, I also sought reinstatement to higher education by enrolling through a distance education programme at the former Technikon SA in 1999 but was unsuccessful again. Two years later, in 2001, I took up part-time studies again at UKZN to study for a degree in Community Development through the financial support of my employer, the former Africa Centre for Population Health, and at that time I had been promoted to the position of fieldwork supervisor and mentored by Dr Kobus Herbst. Coming back to the higher education system after dropping out requires a lot of determination and a strong support system. I would not have done it without the support of my family and friends and being surrounded by experienced mentors.

While I was studying and working, I was awarded Frank Andrews Fellowship to attend the Summer Institute in Survey Research Techniques at the Institute for Social Research of the University of Michigan (USA) in 2003. Spending two months at a prestigious university together with international postgraduate students was a game-changer for me.  It allowed me to look at life from another perspective and to believe in myself that I have the potential to become a successful researcher. As determined as I was, I completed the programme with distinction!

Fast forward, in 2005 just before completing my degree, I left the Africa Centre to work for various organisations, including the United Nations Development Programme, because I felt I needed different exposure outside of the Africa Centre. Unfortunately, I lost my father suddenly four months before accomplishing my promise of graduating. My father was my hero and he truly guided me in my young adulthood to become the woman I am today. Celebrating a big life achievement without my father was emotional and full of grief. His passing gave me a new determination to continue furthering my studies as a tribute to his life. 

Juggling my postgraduate studies, work and family was difficult and required resilience. After graduating with my Master’s in Health Promotion at UKZN, I returned to the former Africa Centre for Population Health (now Africa Health Research Institute) to establish the social science department and to pursue my doctoral degree in Health Promotion at UKZN. My Doctoral work investigated trajectories of intergenerational relationships between adolescents and their grandparent caregivers in the context of HIV combination prevention interventions in rural KwaZulu-Natal. 

In the middle of my PhD journey, I lost my mother too, a woman who instilled values of work ethic and hard work in me. Her death motivated me not to give up on Doctoral studies despite the challenges of balancing my career, studies, and family demands.  Again, before completing my Doctoral degree, I left the Africa Health Research Institute to work for the South African Medical Research Council as a Senior Scientist in the Health System Research Unit. Besides providing intellectual and personal growth and stimulation, my strong research background paved the way for me to transition to academia.

Subsequently, in 2020, I joined DUT as a Lecturer to teach first-year students. Navigating the new academic role in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic and finalising my thesis was emotionally taxing and exhausting. Finally, the long journey that started 27 years ago (similar to the number of years that Tata Mandela spent in prison) in 1994 ended in 2021 when I graduated with my Doctoral degree together with my daughter for her Master’s in Ecological Sciences. My academic journey has shaped my teaching philosophy, research interests, and commitment to assisting students for academic success. I understand the severe constraints faced by many of our students, particularly first-time entering students, and the enormous psychological costs that higher education can bring. It has become my commitment and goal to support young people to thrive in their university journeys because dropping out can have detrimental effects at the individual, family, and societal levels.

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

My main research interests focus on the socio-behavioural aspects of young people’s health and well-being in terms of how the spaces they belong to shape their behaviours. Currently, as an NRF grantholder, my postdoctoral research examines first-year students’ self-care practices through digital stories and the contextual factors shaping their self-care practices within a university setting.

Why is your research important?

My postdoctoral research project is responsive to society and speaks about the realities of South African students. Students’ first-year experiences are key for their progression in higher education. However, the many challenges faced by incoming students, high drop-out and failure rates, as well as the slow progression of students have revealed themselves as complex, persistent, and seemingly intractable crises at South African universities. To achieve Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 3, i.e. ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all, and Goal 4, i.e. ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all, it is important to examine students’ self-care practices and how their first-year experiences contribute to the way they care for themselves.

Creating a culture of self-care in first-year students may help them to establish healthy self-care behaviours early in their academic journeys, which may promote wellness and reduce the challenges impacting their academic success. There is growing recognition of the need for young people to assume responsibility for their own well-being and to be actively involved in self-care. I am hoping that my research will inform effective self-care interventions for young people; policy changes that promote and support self-care behaviours; establishment of a community of practice on self-care research to deepen our theoretical understanding of the self-care concept and contextual factors influencing self-care behaviours in the South African context; and self-care curriculum design in South African higher education institutions.

I am also affiliated with the University of South Africa as an external postgraduate supervisor in the Department of Development Studies and participate as a peer reviewer for the Pre-Publication Support Service at the University of Michigan (US). In addition, I am serving as a reviewer for the Institutional Research Ethics Committee at DUT. Apart from that, I am supporting my daughter’s PhD journey in Urban Ecological Science at UKZN and her initiative on the YouTube channel called “The Black Intel” which focuses on inspiring young people to pursue university studies and exposing them to different career advancement opportunities. Lastly, since maintaining health and well-being is becoming important post-COVID-19, I am working on venturing into the wellness tourism industry to offer something unique to self-care travellers in South Africa.

What advice do you have for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers?

My piece of advice for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers is to remember to take time to care for themselves and to prioritise their self-care. Self-care is often framed as a means to an end, whereas, by definition, self-care is any activity that is done deliberately to focus our efforts on caring for our health mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. I encourage girls to reclaim self-care to sustain their energy and well-being in order to be successful in STEM-related careers and beyond. They need to shift the narrative and take charge of their self-care!

*The NRF’s Thuthuka funding instrument, initiated in 2001, aims to develop human capital and to improve the research capacities of researchers and scholars from designated groups with the ultimate aim of redressing historical imbalances.

**The NRF’s Black Academics Advancement Programme (BAAP), established in partnership with the FirstRand Foundation, aims to promote the development of Black academics specifically, Black South African citizens and academic staff with disabilities, by accelerating the training of PhD and Post-PhD candidates to enhance their research training and accelerate their progression to become established researchers.

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