Youth Month 2023: Betty Sebati

Youth Month 2023: Betty Sebati

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.

Ms Betty Sebati is a PhD candidate in Public Health at the SA Medical Research Council/University of Johannesburg Pan African Centre for Epidemics Research (PACER) Extra Mural Unit. She received funding from the NRF for her BSc Honours (2016) and her MSc degrees (2017 to 2019).

How did your journey start?

I grew up in a village called Ga-Lekgothoane, Ga-Molepo in Limpopo with my mother and father (both of which I am still blessed to have in my life) and my three siblings. I grew up in a loving, respectful, and respectable family where I witnessed my parents breaking their backs to provide for us – and they did a beautiful job. My parents always loved the idea of education even though they never got the opportunity to pursue it fully in their youth. Hence, they always have and still do, encourage us to get as far as possible because learning does not have a finish line. I am blessed to have such an amazingly supportive family.

I attended Tshebela High School at Ga-Molepo and that is where my journey became clear. I loved Life Sciences and I was good at it, so I knew I had to pursue something related to it. While I was there, I was selected to be part of the Targeting Talent Programme facilitated by Wits University from 2010 to 2012. The programme exposed me to different careers in science and prepared me for varsity life. I then applied to the University of Limpopo and got accepted for a BSc degree in Life Sciences which was my first choice.

After my BSc (majoring in Physiology and Biochemistry), I then continued with a BSc Honours degree and then an MSc degree in Physiology – both at the University of Limpopo. I am currently doing my PhD in Public Health at the University of Johannesburg.

Indeed, my current path is what I envisioned for myself, and more. Being introduced to health research was the best part of it all because I found where I belonged and I am running with it.

How has your affiliation with the NRF impacted your studies/career?

My affiliation with the NRF has, without a doubt, empowered and enabled me to be where I am today. It gave me a chance at furthering my studies without owing the university tuition funds and being concerned about accommodation and food expenses. It truly allowed me to focus on my studies and excel. It supported my dreams, and here I am today.

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

The obstacle I overcame was at times having to choose between a job offer and furthering my studies and having to take gap years unintentionally between my MSc and PhD degrees. What I learnt from these obstacles is that everything happens at the right time and when it’s meant to, whether we understand it in the moment or not. I have learnt not to question God’s plans and the Universe but to always be ready to take on my path when the moment comes. The waiting helped me to come across the right opportunities at the right time – it shaped me and continues to do so, enabling me to become the best version of myself in my career journey.

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

I have expertise in non-communicable disease research and have recently (since 2022) ventured into infectious disease and pandemic research to expand my areas of expertise. My current PhD research project is focused on Assessing the Impact of COVID-19 on HIV Care Continuum Among Men Who Have Sex With Men in South Africa: An implementation science study’.

Therefore, my focus is on the HIV epidemic in the country, and evaluating the contribution by the key populations, i.e. the populations that are under-researched, under-served and often overlooked in the HIV response while having high HIV acquisition and transmission rates due to risky sexual behaviours.

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

Given that South Africa must nearly quadruple the number of persons living with HIV on anti-retroviral therapy (ART) to achieve the second 95% of the UNAIDS goals, the study aligns with the UNAIDS 95-95-95 goals by assessing interventions and identifying barriers to HIV treatment access and ensuring that those who test HIV positive are successfully linked to care even in the midst of a pandemic.

Treatment adherence is also required to reach the third 95%. According to modelling, one of the most important strategies for reducing HIV prevalence in South Africa over the next 20 years is adherence support. This is because, as the number of people on treatment increases, maintaining viral suppression in treated patients will become more important for preventing HIV transmission. Hence, the study will generate more knowledge regarding the above and recommend solutions to keep HIV services on track during COVID-19 and potentially other future pandemics.

Moreover, the scope of this study aligns with the South African National Strategic Plans; Goal 2 on increasing access to treatment, care, and adherence support for HIV and Goal 3 which is about reaching vulnerable populations, including key populations. A framework for improving HIV treatment services will be developed and this will provide knowledge to help stakeholders target people for whom HIV treatment is needed. Additionally, the framework of improvement that will be developed in this study will serve as a legitimate institutional tool for training to increase the provision and utilisation of HIV treatment among MSM in South Africa.

In the process of achieving the above, the community will be educated about key populations in order to reduce the stigma and discrimination that can prevent key populations from accessing HIV services.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

My latest greatest achievement is being selected to be part of the top nine young South African scientists to attend the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureates 2023 meeting in June 2023. Furthermore, my first PhD manuscript got accepted for publication this May (to be published in June 2023). I am proud to have publications from all my postgraduate research projects since Honours, with a current total of 12 peer-reviewed publications, including the recently accepted manuscript that I mentioned

What are your career aspirations for the future?

Yes, indeed in the future I aspire and would be honoured to be an NRF-rated researcher and I plan to continue with postdoctoral studies and explore the business side of science while doing impactful research projects that will contribute positively to the health and quality of life for South Africans.

I have realised the importance of working hard and having good guidance and support from people who have travelled the journey you wish to embark on. Therefore, I would like to express my greatest gratitude to Prof Refilwe Phaswana-Mafuya (University of Johannesburg), Dr Edith Phalane (University of Johannesburg) and Prof Kotsedi Monyeki (University of Limpopo) for all the lessons and selfless support they have and continue to show me.

This work is licenced under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 South Africa (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 ZA) license. Please view the terms for republishing here.

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