Women's Month 2023: Dr Mpelegeng Victoria Bvumbi

Women’s Month 2023: Dr Mpelegeng Victoria Bvumbi

August is Women’s Month, and this year the National Research Foundation (NRF) is celebrating the remarkable contributions that have been made by women researchers for the betterment of humanity. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us.

Dr Mpelegeng Victoria Bvumbi is a Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Venda. She is currently an NRF Thuthuka grantholder. She also received a DSI-NRF internship and NRF funding for her PhD and Postdoctoral Fellowship.

What impact did the NRF have on your studies/career?

I first received NRF funding when I was doing my PhD. It was a Professional Development Programme (PDP) grant, and I did my PhD project at the CSIR. Being able to do a PhD at a research council was the best opportunity that I ever received. This is where my journey as an Organic Chemist began and it also entrenched me as a researcher.

Following that, I got NRF funding again for my postdoc at the University of Venda. The opportunity to join an academic institution through NRF funding set me up as an emerging researcher and established me as an academic. I learnt a lot about co-supervision, mentoring, teaching, and conceptualising projects, among others.

Now in 2023, and as a leader of a research group, I was awarded an NRF Thuthuka grant for three years. This funding came at the right time when, as a research group, we were looking to expand in order to diversify our projects beyond the chemistry that we do. We have established some collaborations and the funds will help our students to visit other researchers to learn more about their work. In addition to the research funds, the NRF has supported the three conferences that I attended through its KIC funding.

What has been your study/career journey?

I had no career guidance when I was young, thus when my parents asked what I wanted to do, I told them that I wanted to be a doctor. I enrolled for a BSc at Unisa and chose to do Chemistry because I was familiar with it from secondary school. The Unisa journey was not an easy one as I failed five out of six modules in my first year. I did not give up but instead went back the following year, repeated all those modules, and I passed them.

From that year, I worked harder and started to ‘collect’ all my 30 modules year after year. Even though the degree took me six years to complete, I eventually finished and that was the most joyous and proudest moment for my family as I was the first person to graduate from university. My major subjects were Chemistry and Microbiology. After the completion, I took a break and tried to find a job – but no luck.

During my “break year”, I applied to do an Honours degree in Microbiology and around June/July someone (now my husband) showed me an advert to apply for bursaries called GOOT-EDP to study Honours, Master’s and PhD at the Department of Chemistry at UCT. I applied for the bursary and later I received a letter saying my application at UCT was successful. I took the opportunity and for the first time in January 2006, I travelled to Cape Town to enrol for my BSc Hons in Chemistry. And that was basically where and how my Chemistry journey started.

My time at UCT studying for both Hons and MSc was the best of my schooling years. I learnt so much about Chemistry, the culture, had my first international trip to a conference…the list is endless! After my MSc, now married, I had to leave UCT and later got the DSI-NRF internship at CSIR. I spent a year doing it and because I had indicated in my application that the Chemistry that I’m interested in was Organic Chemistry, I was fortunate to be hosted by an Organic Chemistry research group at the CSIR in Modderfontein before moving to the headquarters in Pretoria. My mentors made me fall in love with the work; the chemistry and research as a whole, and it was this year that I developed more of an interest and passion for the work that organic chemists do.

Towards the end of the year, the manager asked me what I wanted to do the following year. I mentioned a PhD in Organic Chemistry, and he said that he would apply for the NRF’s PDP. And lucky for me, he got it. While doing my research at the CSIR, I registered at the University of Johannesburg. To this day, I’m grateful for what my then-manager did for me because had he not given me the opportunity to do a PhD at the CSIR, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

After the completion of my PhD, I moved to Limpopo to join the Chemistry Department at the University of Venda as a postdoctoral researcher (the department’s first Postdoc Fellow). After the postdoc, I joined the department as a part-time lecturer and, until recently, as a full-time/permanent senior lecturer.

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

I lecture Organic Chemistry modules for first, second and Honours levels. I am also responsible for all the first-year practical or experimental sessions. On the other hand, I have a research group where I supervise Honours and MSc and co-supervise PhD students with other colleagues in the department.

My research area is in synthetic chemistry with more interests in medicinal chemistry and drug discovery. The three diseases that we focus on in our research projects are Malaria, HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis. We aim to synthesise the organic compounds and test their potency against the mentioned diseases. We identify methods of synthesising the compounds by using organic chemistry procedures, improving the methods for better yields and purities etc. We also work with other special areas such as computational chemists, biochemists, and biologists as it is important to get the overall picture of what we are dealing with.

Why is your research/work important?

The reason our research projects are focusing on the three diseases is due to their prominence in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The number six goal states that we should combat HIV-AIDS, malaria and other diseases. So, with our research, we hope to contribute to the search for new or repurposed synthetic compounds that could serve as leads towards the discovery of new drugs.

It is well known that parasites, viruses and bacteria become resistant to available drugs at certain stages, so the continuous search for new drugs is important and highly needed if we want to stay ahead.

There is still a long way to go to truly achieve equity and a sense of belonging for women, be it within the research community or society in general. How do you envision yourself contributing to this space?

I work in a department where there are only two female academic staff members, therefore, this statement is very true. So, whenever I’m given a platform to talk about or promote science, I also make sure to tell the young women in the audience that they too can make it. I am proof that it is possible. I am involved in a lot of community engagements, be it in the form of addressing young high school girls, science outreaches etc. I always tell them one thing: “Set your goals and work towards them, irrespective of your background, gender, colour or otherwise”.

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

The advice that I have for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers is that they too can make it. If other women (and they are many of them!) could make it, so can they. All they need to do is believe in themselves. That there’s no magic for success, you work hard for it!

What I’ve learnt is that things don’t just happen. Everything has its own purpose and at the right time, it shall come to pass. There are no shortcuts in life – in everything we persevere, work hard, and don’t give up. Failure doesn’t mean it’s the end, instead, it’s a wake-up call. But above all, knowledge is power!

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