In A World Full of Choices: We can be… Scientists

Noxolo Ntuli

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.





The life of a science postgrad. student: what other people don’t know (the truth, the whole-ish truth and nothing but the truth) part 2

I’ve been meaning, for the longest time, to write this blog ever since posting part 1 many months ago. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I should include here. The last thing I wanted was to repeat myself, possibly boring my readers to death.

Science postgraduate-ship comes with many new responsibilities among which is compulsory attendance *after years of having the option to not show up*, and you must show up because it’s kind of hard for the lecturer to not notice your absence when you alone make up 33.3 or even 50%  of the class. The second new responsibility is demonstrating laboratory practices which includes supervising undergraduate students in the practical component of their classroom theory.  As you might have guessed it, supervising means you get the honour of walking away with over a dozen student books and must have them marked and ready before subsequent sessions…which are weekly. And that’s not even the half of it. Being a demonstrator requires that you prepare for the sessions each week which means reading on the subject before attending a pre-practical session conducted by module lecturers or teaching assistants. Might I remind you that the thing for which YOU are registered still needs to get done. I particularly enjoyed demonstrating because all those students made me feel needed. It was a damsel in distress type situation, hands popping up everywhere!  But there were days where you come from a hectic day at the Lab or out in the field and just the thought of the marking alone*which takes hours*, was enough to make you wanna drive to the nearest bar.

Besides saving undergraduates and compiling endnote libraries and reading literature and writing and conducting experiments and collecting data (including good quality pictures/videos) and designing posters/presentations etc., we do other things. We have dinners *on condition that there is little or no payment required from own pockets*and/or meet up for drinks over a braai or have games nights *these are from our own empty pockets*, you know the usual. Of course this happens only occasionally in a year but nevertheless. Some supervisors even invite their students to their homes for these dinners. Speaking of which, it is very important to do research on your supervisor before you start working with him or her. Well sometimes you don’t have a choice because you’re so interested in the study that you brave being supervised by someone who might not necessarily provide you with all the necessary guidance, support or motivation. You are highly favoured if you find a supervisor who is still very passionate about the field of study but if you’re a self-driven type person you will manage, mostly, just fine. If you are not self-sufficient, fear not. There will, hopefully, be kind colleagues at your centre/Lab that will assist you as you find your way -they will even encourage you when needed. These are the people with whom you potentially build lasting friendships. But there is also a likelihood of friction between colleagues which is often the case in most work environments anyway.

Postgraduates attend conferences… which means you spend quite some time designing slides. And when you and your well-prepared presentation are stood in the front, it can sometimes go like this:


But, nevertheless, conferences are great networking platforms *thanks to the dinners and breaks between sessions* and also give you the opportunity to improve your presentation skills and to even travel a little *national or international*. For researchers *most not all* to not have excellent stage presence *presentation skills?* is no surprise because you spend a good fraction of the year not really having to verbally communicate about your research on a formal platform.

And what about money? Do postgraduates make a lot of money? Postgraduates don’t make a killing. You make enough to get by but at the same time you can afford petrol for the car you drive which you did or didn’t purchase with postgraduate money. It’s all really dependent on what other responsibilities *excluding the devil called rent* you have, and being able to manage money. But majority of postgraduates are broke *the truth*. We don’t have much money but we are generally good people who help each other out. WhatsApp *postgrad group* comes in most handy in this regard. You probably thinking, whatsApp groups are such a nightmare, but they work very well when the people on the group understand the purpose for which the group exists. It also helps *maybe?*when the number of participants is large and not everyone in the group is your friend so people shy away from posting silly content, even though one crazy scientist will occasionally do so.

How postgraduates submit their thesis:


The thesis was mentioned in part 1 but one other important thing is saving the draft. The draft becomes your most valuable possession which must be protected at all costs, even if it means putting your life on the line. A friend of mine Noxolo Ntuli literally became famous in SA mid-last year for “protecting” her handbag from criminals who were trying to drive away with it. In the handbag was a flash stick containing her thesis…she refused to let go of the bag *which also contained other important belongings*. This was very brave of her because she could have been killed. When speaking to her, she said she had saved it elsewhere as well but she just didn’t feel like surrendering her belongings that day. So save your latest draft anywhere and everywhere… no measure is too much when this is concerned. Understand that it’s months or years of work down the drain, and your only option would be to start over. I’m not going to bore you about the agony of the months’ long wait for the results to get back, story for another day.

And that’s pretty much the whole-ish truth, from my side anyway. If you are pursuing or about to pursue postgraduate studies in science…May the odds ever be in your favour.

To my readers

Dear reader,

please accept my sincere apology for not being accountable to you. I have been very inconsistent with my posts in 2018. I can list a bunch of reasons why, aka excuses, but that won’t change a thing. I am sorry! I will try my best to develop some kind of posting standard going forward.

Yours sincerely,

Miss Hlophe

The future is a myth

This past week I started reading The power of now by Eckhart Tolle. This book and I met while I was visiting a friend in Johannesburg. I was at another friends place when, visually browsing through his stack of books, I came across it. I randomly went to a section in the book and proceeded to read *a common practise of mine if you know me well*. A page later, I knew this book and I were just meant to be … but I had to wait. And a few days shy of a year later, I finally got my hands on it, and in the most unlikely way ever.  After having read a few pages *on my personal copy*, I couldn’t help but notice that as human beings we can all come to a similar realisation but through different experiences and at different times in space *The universe keeps recycling experiences*. The power of now is not a foreign idea to me. Over a year ago, I sat down and wrote my very first blog in which I went on to point out the importance of not only being in the present moment but of accepting and embracing the moment for what it is. When you read the blog you can tell that I was in some kind of pain, pain which, according to the book, I was creating –The pain that you create now is always some form of nonacceptance or unconscious resistance to what is i.e. NOW. The more you are able to honour and accept now, the more you are free of pain. Now is a new opportunity to be and do amazing things, it’s the only opportunity you can be certain of ever getting again. The future is a second from now. It is the moment for which you could not prove certainty of your existence if your life depended on it. So…the time is now. What else is there?  The future we all so very much glorify and look to in anticipation IS A MYTH!

Life itself is now and always now.

I am not a Coconut

Growing up, I absolutely hated being called a Coconut… and being the black girl who loved speaking English, I was guaranteed to be called a Coconut every so often.  I hated being called a Coconut because, to me, it meant that the person who said it, was implying that I was trying to be a thing that I was not, that I was trying to be white *even though I hardly knew any white people and only had a single white teacher at my school*. I have since realized that I was not trying to be white but yes, I am a Coconut. So I am saying it was entirely true that I was *still am* a Coconut but the generic definition or rather the understood definition was incorrect… Coconut was ill-defined. I realized this when I came across Eusebius McKaiser’s A Bantu in my bathroom.  There is a chapter that caught my attention as I was aimlessly browsing through the book –Don’t call me Coconut, bru.

I read through some of the chapter and thought how true! I realized that a Coconut is…

I simply found myself in a situation that was beyond my scope as a child entering into the schooling system. I was there to learn and, as children, we can only learn a lesson if it is being thought. I was surrounded by people of a different race and/or culture who where teaching me in my time of becoming. Not only was I being thought by them but they made up my social circle. I was learning to be like them. I believe this was a process that had little or nothing to do with how I felt about who I was *I was none the wiser*. I was in a place of learning and was doing just that… but at the same time nobody was there to encourage me to notice myself and my culture. There was exchange of culture but the exchange was mostly going in one direction because I was receiving theirs when mine wasn’t necessarily being received or encouraged.

For me personally, it wasn’t a painful experience but now that I look back on it, it is rather sad… and costly to cultural identity. The saddest reality to date is that the spectrum of race still has a hierarchy. I wonder if there has since been any “transformation” in the multiracial education system of our country. I wonder if they have started to significantly accommodate diversity of cultures in the classroom, especially in primary schools because…in the words of McKaiser “schools are not just places where we learn to read, write and count. They are places where our personalities, characters and values are shaped. So we owe it to ourselves to re-engineer our educational spaces to produce genuinely multicultural citizens.”

If the schools won’t do it, I believe it is the duty of the parent who sends their child to school to ensure that they are also not only learning but celebrating their cultural heritage…which is something that I started doing very late in life. I am a Coconut… thus in some instances I find it challenging to connect with aspects of my culture and to interact with people of my culture, especially those who have not been through a similar schooling system. School is by no means the be-all and end-all of who we become *thankfully*, but it certainly has a significant role to play.

To fellow Coconuts, Happy Coconutting


Love stood up

Kindness is not old-fashioned… or it shouldn’t be.  Not to give myself a pat on the back, but I’m one of the kindest people one can meet… or at least I used to be. We live in a time where not a lot of people show kindness to one another, a time where we can watch another’s suffering and not only fold our arms but look the other way, at best we will throw some crumbs under the table and carry on as we were. Granted, a lot has changed with changing times. Life keeps getting tougher and toughier (with unemployment and the likes). There are so many pressures… of not just being human but of being human in a world full of gender issues and gender pressures, and race issues, and this and that and the other. But what does this mean? Do we suddenly have no choice but to be bitter and battered folk? One afternoon, a young black lady walked into a bus and sat in the seat next to mine. A stop later a bunch of people walked into the bus, among who was a white lady. The young lady seated next to me stood up and offered her the seat. I don’t know why she picked her of all the people that stood around but I assumed it was because she was the oldest in the bunch (but she wasn’t an old lady).

A few minutes later, I was crossing in the middle of a busy road and saw a homeless white man at a car window receiving something from an unidentified person. I didn’t see what the something was at the time but when I got on the other side there he was. They (him and a friend, assumption) sat with me on a bench while I waited for another bus. “What is it?” his friend asked him. They begin to empty the contents of the package. Among other items *more interesting items at that* there was a toothbrush. Just a simple toothbrush…not even the electric or bedazzled kind but a simple old toothbrush…was the thing he was most excited about…because “I’m going to get to brush my gums,” he said to his friend. Something so little and meaningless for most who get to do it every day without thinking how much it means to someone down some street. It was then that I realized *and I needed to realize * that, come what may, I can’t ever let kindness escape me. I must keep obeying that still gentle voice inside me to let love stand up. Love stood up in the midst of a crowded bus.


When they listened to the gentle call from within, love stood up from the inside_NH

Through broken pieces

It is not to physical pieces that we are broken but we are broken to what feels like the broken, scattered pieces of a ceramic object. We are Broken into pieces… some of which can never be put back in place thus needing to be replaced by a substance that is not of self.  A substance that brings substance to take us beyond the threshold of brokeness into a wholesome understanding that we are broken not to be destroyed but to be positioned and strengthened. We are broken to bear witness that the breaking is not meant to kill us but to make us strong.

The trick is to survive. To survive the memory of our childhood breaking. As children we survive a sequence of breakings. As adults we bear the con-sequences of traveling on this slippery and sliding road of inevitable falls. We are molded by the hurts and hauntings of the times we survived. As mended pieces we survive and strive then thrive into a future of unknown but continuous breakage. I hope you do not get killed, I hope you get stronger.

Dedicated to Zesuliwe Zondo, author of Through Broken Pieces, who unknowingly inspired me to spring into the action of starting my writing journey.

Thank you Suli 🙂

To the guy who: drives a BMW, has several business interests, has a house at Waterfall estate or Umhlanga, shops in Sandton, only ever drinks bottled water…etc.

Things don’t impress me. Reciting your possessions won’t get my attention but will in fact do the opposite of the desired effect *I will silently (internally) roll my eyes as you, within 5 mins of meeting me for the first time ever, list out the number of countries you have graced with your presence *. I don’t have much *yet* but things WILL NOT impress me. Of course I want things!.. and you must be able to afford things.. but they will not help you to win me over.


The lady who is gaatvol with guys that throw their things around

In a world full of choices

When we say we have no choice, what are the chances that we really don’t have a choice? How can one be without a choice in a world FULL of choices? No, like really! How?… unless if that one is being held at gunpoint and is forced to do as the captor suggests… but even at that moment (as a person who has had a gun pointed straight at them) I think there is still room for choice *though my situation might have been a bit different – or was it*. We have a choice right…24/7 …365. Every.Day.We.Can.Choose. EVERY.SINGLE.DAY. We’ve all heard this (or similar), “Life will happen to you but it is up to you to choose how to react.” I can still remember the impact of the moment when I first heard *most likely read* these words. It was such a revelation. A familiar revelation in the sense that – “I knew these words before they hit me.” –You choose. So I should have no excuses right…my life should be a success right. I mean that’s what happens when you know better. When you know the power in your ability to choose…to decide. When you know better, you do better right.  Right! …but not quite. As humans we have the tendency to decide wrong when we know right. I would like to think that knowing is different from not knowing. Not knowing is not like knowing and being too coward *myself included* to navigate the unfamiliar. Knowing puts you at an advantage… it gives you the upper hand.

But what about the person who has no idea that they can choose. That they can choose to not become a mom straight after completing high school. That becoming someone’s wife now that they have their child/children is not necessarily the best and only possible option. That a single mom has other options other than becoming someone’s domestic help for life. That life is full of choices. That their life doesn’t have to revolve around their man or any man. That the common route is not the only route. This dear reader is what happens to us when we exist in “closed” communities where fathers and their sons and sons of their sons only know to work piece-jobs that demand their blood, sweat, and tears only to earn close to nothing. Where gossiping about others ALL.THE.TIME is the favourite pastime. Where a weekend without consuming copious amounts of alcohol is unheard of. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. They honestly have no idea! *I’ve concluded* because when you know better, you do better right.

Knowing better starts with a single mind… and from there it becomes a ripple effect. It starts with a father who raises his sons to know not only his options * the “hand-me-down” choices* but to seek more, to seek their own. It starts with a mother who raises her daughters not only to know her options but to seek more… because this world is full of options. There are days when I feel like -“I don’t have a choice” and that’s a lie but I’m not talking about days, I’m talking about generational mindsets of choicelessness. The illusion of choicelessness hinders progress. I’d like to think choicelessness is a thing that exists only in the mind.

The point is, we have a choice… we ALL have a choice…to be artist, to be academics, to be accountants, to be writers, to be teachers, pilots, scientists, lawyers, managers, headhunters, presidents. May we raise our children to ALWAYS have a choice.

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