NRF Women's Month: Dr Yandiswa Yako

NRF Women’s Month: Dr Yandiswa Yako

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 Yandiswa Yako is a Senior Lecturer and Head of the Biochemistry Division at Walter Sisulu University (WSU). She received an NRF Postdoctoral Fellowship at WITS (2015 – 2016) and an NRF Thuthuka* Grant (2018 and 2020 – 2021) at WSU.

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

I matriculated at Qokolweni Senior Secondary Schools, Mthatha, Eastern Cape Province, in 1995. Having passed Mathematics, Biology, and Physical Science at Higher Grade, I applied for Dentistry at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). However, while in the process of registering as a student at UWC, I found myself enrolling for a Bachelor of Science (BSc Hons) without knowing what would become of my career path at that time.

After several unsuccessful attempts to get out of academics and find a job elsewhere, I enrolled for a BSc Hons at the then University of Port Elizabeth (now known as Nelson Mandela University) in 1999, and then MSc in Medical Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University (SU) in 2002. Pursuing postgraduate studies in science was the only necessary choice as staying at home doing nothing (in absence of a job) was not an option. As a postgraduate student, I was always one of the few Black females in historically white institutions. This came with challenges, but I remained focused despite being uncertain about my career path.  

It was when I was working as a research assistant in 2006 that becoming a Medical Research Scientist was a conscious decision, and I later enrolled at SU for a PhD in Chemical Pathology. At that time, I wanted to be a researcher, not a lecturer, because I grew to love working in a laboratory. As a PhD student and a Postdoctoral Fellow in several academic and research institutions, working in a laboratory was not enough, I wanted to do more. One would think being a Medical Science Researcher at the University of Witwatersrand would be satisfying and motivating. However, it was while working as a Postdoctoral Fellow at WITS that my need to contribute to the career development of young Black scientists became evident.

Subsequently, I applied for a position at WSU where I am currently employed as a Senior Lecturer. This took writing an email to the then Dean of Faculty of Health Sciences in 2016, who happened to be in a meeting at WITS at that time. Although we never met, the Dean read my email and responded within an hour, and I applied for one of the lecturer positions that were available at the time. And the rest is history.

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

I am involved in the teaching of students who are training as medical doctors in addition to those pursuing a career in medical science research. WSU has faced many challenges as a historically underprivileged academic institution, and as a result, has lost many credible lecturers. I am in my sixth year of working as a lecturer in an academic institution of Higher Education that doesn’t have much recognition, yet still determined to make a needed contribution to the upliftment of Black youth.

I am investigating the biology underpinning the development and progression of Type 2 diabetes, which is one of the diseases causing a health and economic burden not only in South Africa but globally as well. I am walking the road less travelled by being at WSU, currently as the only Black female Medical Biochemist in the entire WSU who is both a lecturer and a researcher with a PhD in Chemical Pathology. I am transferring my research skills to physicians and students and adding knowledge to the medical science field through research. One question that remains in my mind and keeps me grounded at WSU isif not me, who will?”

Why is your research important?

Type 2 diabetes remains one of the most devastating chronic diseases of lifestyle globally, although it is preventable.  Many Black communities are affected by this disease, partly because of their limited knowledge about its risk factors and management strategies. Type 2 diabetes has been studied for many decades, however, there is still a lot to investigate about its underlying biological processes. Furthermore, available treatment is based on Western-derived medical drugs even though Black communities have been using traditional medicine for many years.

The effectiveness of traditional medicines that are originating from the Eastern Cape Province have been given little attention in research. I am hoping to extend my research to investigate bioactive compounds that are found in traditional medicines, as well as identify intervention strategies that could be effective in reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes. I am currently working in collaboration with researchers at the South African Medical Council, testing one of the Type 2 diabetes intervention programmes in communities in the Eastern Cape Province.

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

There is no better time to pursue a Science-related profession than in this decade. Science will forever be relevant in our lives as diseases and technology continue to progress and advance. South Africa is still in need of Medical Scientists with creativity and innovation to produce medical devices (diagnostic instruments), drugs, and vaccines that can be readily available to curb the burden of diseases in our country. Underprivileged communities are still in need of role models who are in other Medical Science fields i.e. not only medical doctors (Physicians/Clinicians/Nurses/Clinical Associates).

Furthermore, scientists who are academics are ageing, necessitating the continuous training of new scientists to take over their role. Females need to take their place in societies outside the home environment and contribute to building the nation.

Success requires hard work, determination, and building a brand that you can be proud of through good work and moral ethics. This should by no means be in competition with our male counterparts, but working together in complementing our capabilities. Let us be the change we want to see. 

This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Please view the terms for republishing here

*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.

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