Youth Month 2021: Dikeledi C. Sebola

Youth Month 2021: Dikeledi C. Sebola

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the Youth of the NRF who are Advancing Knowledge, Transforming Lives and Inspiring a Nation. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young dreamers and achievers who are affiliated with the NRF through their work or studies.

Ms Dikeledi C. Sebola is a PhD student in Veterinary Sciences: Paraclinical Sciences, at the University of Pretoria. She received a DSI-NRF Internship in 2016 and an NRF Doctoral Scholarship for 2020-2023.

This is her story…

I grew up in Tzaneen in a small township called Lenyenye. I started primary school in Lenyenye at Ramalema Primary School, then I went to Manorvlei Primary School in Tzaneen and proceeded to S. J Van Der Merwe Technical High School where I completed matric in 2005.

Growing up in a semi-rural area, there wasn’t a lot of career guidance at the time. So, like a lot of people, my career choices fluctuated while I was growing up. In Grade 11, I met someone who was a microbiologist and that is when I developed an interest in Microbiology. At that time, I still only had a vague idea as to what Microbiology was but I had an interest in laboratory work.

I enrolled at the University of Pretoria in 2006 and I was excited to be doing something I was interested in, although I did not understand the path I was on. The research was not that normalised in those days, so we mostly learned about our career choices in classes. While I was on the course, I developed an interest in more than just laboratory work – I was interested in the research thereof. I desired to do medical microbiology post-graduation, unfortunately, I did not qualify at that time.

Fast forward to PhD: I am doing what I wanted to do today. Not my childhood vision, but it developed as I continued studying.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

My academic journey on its own has been one obstacle after the other. I had a journey where the idea that I could one day be enrolled for my doctorate was a far-fetched dream. I came from a family where I was practically the first one to enrol at a university, thus I did not have anyone as a reference for anything university-related. I struggled to find my feet in my first years in Pretoria. With time, I adjusted, and Pretoria became my home away from home.

In my second year of studies, I encountered my first failure at school. It was huge, but I told myself that I would overcome. I had the desire to succeed at that time and I kept it moving. However, I found myself being caught in one failure after the other. I did not understand what was happening – I got demotivated and I failed even more. Eventually, I dropped out in 2011 with the hope of getting a job. I thought I would find my peace in the time I took off, but I was stressed even more because I desired to change the narratives around me. I believed even more in finishing what I have started, regardless of circumstances. In my stress, I got extremely sick in 2013 and was diagnosed with diabetes. At that time, I was not working or studying, so I had no finances to maintain my treatment or the new lifestyle, holistically. I was in despair, but the zeal to succeed never dimmed.

I decided to go back to the same university and enrolled in 2015. I was probably among the oldest in our class, but that never derailed me. I, more than ever, encouraged myself every day. I became my own motivation. I wanted something I could be proud of at the end of the journey. Yes, I had people who were there for me, my family and friends stood with me and encouraged me on the journey.

End of 2015, I completed my studies. With my not so “good looking” academic record, I took another step of faith and applied for a DSI-NRF Internship for 2016. I just did it because my other classmates were applying, I never thought I would make the cut because I didn’t have such a competitive academic background. Surprisingly enough, on 26 January 2017, I got a call for an interview for the DSI-NRF Internship. On 27 January 2017, I got placed at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Veterinary Science. It was unbelievable for me. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a great journey for me. My story changed when I met my mentor in April 2017, Prof DN Qekwana, a Doctor then. He believed in me, regardless of my academic background. I found myself regaining confidence within a few months and seeing the possibility of pushing beyond my BSc. I wanted more – I wanted to do my Honours, my Master’s and my PhD! I somehow forgot my history and believed in my progress. I soldiered on from there. I remember some doors being shut in my face because of my undergraduate marks.

I didn’t have funding for Honours or Master’s, but I was determined to win. I continued to Master’s without funding. My health was taking a knock because the pressure was too much and I couldn’t afford my medication. I never stopped, I survived with the little I had because something inside me was strong and I believed I would make it. I completed my Master’s in 2019 and I was ready for a PhD. I applied for funding again, and by the grace of God, I got funding for my PhD. I enrolled in 2020 and a friend of mine told me about an initiative that was done at TOYOTA, called, “begin your impossible”. I decided to put my health as an “impossible”. The vision was to be off medication and live a healthy lifestyle.

During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, I started working out. In May 2020, I intentionally hit the streets of Sunnyside in the cold. No gym gear, but the vision was bigger. I heard it was possible to manage diabetes by exercising – I believed it and worked out. In September 2020, I was off medication. I had conquered my “impossible”. I am still off medication and a second-year PhD student at the University of Pretoria.

What is your area of expertise?

My research focus is on infection prevention and control in veterinary medicine. I focus mostly on the management of the transmission of nosocomial infections. The study looks at implementing multimodal approaches to improve hand hygiene among healthcare workers.

How can your research/work advance knowledge, transform lives and inspire a nation?

Multimodal approaches have been implemented in human hospitals to improve hand hygiene compliance, and where they have been introduced, they have led to an improvement in hand hygiene compliance and reductions in nosocomial organisms.

Most healthcare facilities have implemented different strategies to improve hand hygiene compliance, however, long-lasting hand hygiene compliance remains a problem. In view of this, the WHO recommends that multiple actions be implemented for a successful and sustained improvement of hand hygiene compliance. Although the approach has shown to be effective in human medicine, there are limited reports in veterinary medicine showing the adoption of the tool in veterinary hospitals. As such, the results of this study will lead to the development of an effective tool that could be implemented in veterinary hospital settings to reduce the transmission of HAI pathogens.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

Where I am today academically is my proudest achievement. I take pride in the milestones I keep achieving academically, knowing the journey has been tough.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic (and national lockdown) change the way you work/study? How did you adapt to the “new normal”?

Not much was affected by the national lockdown as I was still in my first year of PhD. However, at some point, I was hit by extreme anxiety about the pandemic as cases were increasing and there was limited access to supervisors, other students, and the normal academic life.

What is the best advice you have ever received (and from whom)?

There are a couple that I live by, but, there is a Pedi saying that says: “Kgotlelelo e tswala Katlego”, which translates to “perseverance births success”.

What, in your opinion, are some of the best ways to get youngsters interested in science-related careers?

Without exposure to science streams, learners will still not understand what STEM is and what it entails. I think the scientific community needs to form a forum where there will be representation reaching out to schools and offering career expos, especially in STEM. Moreover, funds could be made available for STEM-related projects and businesses owned by young people so it entices other learners to know there is more to STEM. Some schools do not have access to equipped laboratories or technology workshops, and as a result, learners are not equipped with the necessary knowledge to enhance their interest.

Notwithstanding, we live in a world of social media and quite often STEM has been painted in a bad light. There are job security worries, funding for studies, comfort, and many other issues. The scientific community has a responsibility to come up with strategies on how to change the narrative.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I would like to become an NRF-rated researcher, join academia, and transfer my skills.

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