As per normal, like any other high school student, I had to pick subjects before commencing with grade 10 studies…And I chose Science! There was no special reason other than the fact that I generally enjoyed maths. The funny thing is, I secretly wanted to do everything my brother did, but I knew I couldn’t because he was studying to become an accountant and I had not done anything finance related. I think part of the reason why I wanted to be like him was the fact that he made everything look effortless and I just thought I could be like him. During my matric year, I started looking at science careers to figure out what I was interested in. I remember that I really liked the genetics section in Life Science and I thought why not become a geneticist!
My family didn’t know what a geneticist is, and I couldn’t explain clearly to them, but I was so sure that I’d be happy with that career choice. No one had done a science degree in my family, so I had no reference point for what I wanted to study. I had a lot of people suggest that I become a doctor and so I applied for medicine and biomedical science. When I was not accepted into Medicine, I chose Biomedical Science. That’s how and where the journey began.
My journey to becoming a scientist was not a very pleasant one. I don’t think that I was mentally prepared for the hard work that was expected from me. I remember once getting 18% for a test in first year and that turned my world upside down! I did not know how to dust myself up and try again. I was so used to passing with ease and I had never experienced failure. Thereafter, studies became an uphill battle and a blur most of the time. I had to remind myself of where I wanted to be and that helped me focus and work harder. I realised that nothing worthwhile comes easy. Luck is right up there with hard work. The harder I worked, the luckier I got. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to study and obtain a master’s degree.
I am now a qualified medical scientist and the learning does not stop. I learn new science techniques every day at my job and my horizon is constantly expanding. Science is so vast and versatile. You can literally design your day job by choosing aspects of science that interest you. In that way, you will never stop learning, science will become the gift that keeps on giving. I majored in Molecular biology and that sounds very general but with my qualifications I get to test malaria patients for drug resistant parasites and one day I will get to say that I am one of the people who eliminated malaria. My daily activities include running Polymerase chain reactions (PCRs) on blood samples to test for the presence of malaria parasites. I then use different markers of drug resistance if the samples are positive for malaria parasites. I use Sanger sequencing to see whether the parasite present is resistant to treatment. It all sounds very technical but it’s easy.
Being a scientist is a lot of work and unfortunately, it is not the highest paying job I know. I would encourage anyone who wants to peruse science, to have a passion for it. The less passionate you are about it, the less fun it will be. Experiments fail all the time, so you need a lot of patience to troubleshoot what went wrong and how you plan to fix it. I encourage anyone who is innovative to consider science, I especially get excited when more girls are into this male dominated industry. I work in an all-women’s laboratory and we are doing pretty cool stuff!
Noxolo Ntuli is a scientist working with the National Health Laboratory Services. She is interested in diseases dynamics and how simple diseases are not easy to eliminate. She is passionate about women and children, and believes that diseases affecting children, especially in impoverished countries should be eliminated. She dreams of working for the United Nations International children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) or the World Health Organisation (WHO) to make important decisions about public health.