NRF Women's Month 2022: Dr Nqobile Monate Mkolo

NRF Women’s Month 2022: Dr Nqobile Monate Mkolo

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 Nqobile Monate Mkolo is aLecturer at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU) and is currently funded by the NRF’s Black Academics Advancement Programme (BAAP)*.

What impact did NRF funding have on your career?

I received the NRF’s Black Academics Advancement Programme (BAAP) funding for two years (2022-2023). The award includes funds for the Faculty to appoint a replacement lecturer for the period that the beneficiary is on sabbatical as well as running expenses for the actual research costs of the project.

BAAP funding has tremendously enhanced my research training and accelerated my progression toward becoming an established researcher. I continued to enhance my niche area as I have increased the number of postdoctoral researchers, and MSc and PhD students that I am supervising this year. Moreover, I have also increased the number of my publications and collaborations nationally and internationally. Currently, I am serving as Guest Editor for the Journal of Visualized Experiments.

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

My research career has followed a largely academic route. I obtained my BSc degree from the University of the Free State. My early career as a researcher started when I was doing my Honours at the University of Witwatersrand. I absorbed the ethic of responsibility and enthusiasm of Prof Maureen Coetzee (NRF A-rated) and made it my own. At the University of Limpopo, under Prof Solomon Magano’s supervision, I obtained my Master’s in Biology. During this time, I successfully published my first article on plant-based products, which received total article views of 3 184 and 28 citations.

I further pursued a PhD in Para-Clinical Sciences at the University of Pretoria (UP), awarded in 2020. The journey of this PhD set me ineluctably on my path. I continued to publish, collaborate and work in diverse related fields in multiple settings at UP (Para-Clinical Sciences); Taconic Bioscience USA and Denmark (Jan 2018 – Dec 2020); Biomedical Research Centre (Jan 2018 – Nov 2021); Bayworld (Feb 2019 – Present); Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research (June 2021 – Present); University of South Africa (Jan 2016 – Dec 2021), Agricultural Research Council (Jan 2020 – Present); North-West University (Jan 2019 – Present); Biofuels Business incubator (Jul 2021 – Present); South African National Biodiversity Institute (Jan 2019 – Present), Wageningen University & Research, Netherlands; and Tadulako University Indonesia (March 2021 – Present).

Recently, I was selected to participate in the HERS-SA Academy 2022 Women Leadership Programme. I was also nominated for SAHTAC Champions-Prominent and upcoming Black women scientists/researchers in R&DI. I was also nominated to represent the School of Science and Technology on the University Task Team on Internationalisation, a sequel to the renewed dispensation to foreground internationalisation on all fronts at SMU. I was also awarded funding from the South African Medical Research Council and received the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Best Researcher Under 40 Years of Age.

My academic pedigree is further exemplified by being the Principal Investigator of a project on the integration of metabolomic fingerprinting and molecular docking analysis of secondary metabolites of South African plants: Focus on protease (Mpro) and spike (S) glycoprotein of SARS-CoV-2. Through relentless mental push, I try to continue to race on thinning tires and push through to the next obstacle. I always thrive on climbing a new mountain every few months.

My life is divided into two parts. I always focus on learning about myself and look at the “five fundamentals” of understanding my own talent, achiever style and life patterns and making them work for me. Secondly, I work through the “seven behaviours” – taking responsibility, building relationships, embracing change, inviting opportunity, being passionate, being conscious and getting focused.

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

My current research focus is based on Phytomedicine. Much of my research career has evolved since SARS-CoV-2 was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization on 30 January 2020. Currently, I am mining medicinal plants for the discovery of bioactive lead compounds against SARS-CoV-2 using metabolomics, proteomics approaches and artificial intelligence techniques. I am also investigating the potential usefulness of South African plants for treating various health issues in humans and animals.

Why is your research important?

We are living in a time of enormous scientific innovation and promise for improved human health. Thus, the foremost transformation goal of my research is to create knowledge for sustainability transformation and to achieve real-world impact.

My research projects comply with transformation objectives, namely:

  1. Social and health impact: My research may trigger drug developers to make a concerted effort to apply and integrate multiple innovations that can transform development for the improvement of human health. My research also provides fundamental information that is trustworthy and reliable to different African communities and scientists in order to impact health outcomes on our continent and around the world.
  2. Internationalisation for transdisciplinary engagements: To enable the transfer of skills and knowledge, I have made a network of scientific cooperation (research collaboration) with research experts in different countries.
  3. Improvement of research culture: The lack of appropriate research culture is one of the main barriers for any researcher, it influences researchers’ career paths and determines the way that research is conducted and communicated. Thus, my research promotes research culture at SMU by sharing good research practices on improving well-being and mental health, research integrity, and equality, diversity and inclusion.

Moreover, my research will provide the meaningful transformation of South African society through the realisation of the national ideological principles of democratisation, equity and non-discrimination.

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

There are two types of beliefs that discourage girls from pursuing STEM at an early age: negative stereotypes about their intellectual abilities, and stereotypes about the people who work in STEM careers as being “nerdy” or socially awkward. These negative stereotypes must not discourage girls since skills develop over time for everyone. Girls must know that sometimes they are going to flop, but this does not mean they are a failure. They must always foster a growth mindset.

Another component that is always in my mind is to frame failure as a learning opportunity instead of something to be avoided or brushed under the carpet when it occurs. This can be done by focusing on the learning process, for example, discovering where the mistakes come from and troubleshooting new strategies for the next time. All I can say is that “Girl, your potential is endless”.

*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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