Why did you get into research?
Growing up my uncle used to call me a Scientist. He encouraged me to study towards a Bachelor of Science. At Fort Hare I studied a BSC in Microbiology and Botany. After graduating I moved to UCT (the University of Cape Town) because I wanted to learn more about the impact of infectious disease on the health of humans.
Why this specialisation?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) epidemiology and surveillance is important. HPV is associated with several cancers. Cervical cancer is a major public health issue and almost all its cases are caused by HPV. The high burden of HIV in South Africa also influences the high prevalence of cervical cancer cases in the country. It is important to have HPV surveillance activities that will assist government’s policy makers – especially now that we have an HPV vaccine program in our country. This work can provide data to monitor the vaccine’s impact. In the Eastern Cape HPV research activities are limited. We have projects at Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital and Mbekweni Clinic in Mthatha, this work is in collaboration with Walter Sisulu University. We also have an HPV-awareness education project for high school students of the Eastern Cape.
What should people know about HPV that isn’t necessarily common knowledge?
One cannot educate about HPV without mentioning how it is transmitted, risk factors, and diseases that are caused by HPV. I used to think that knowledge about HPV and its associated diseases is limited only in the rural areas – but this is a problem in urban spaces too. The International Papillomavirus Society initiated an HPV-awareness campaign to share information about HPV, its associated diseases, and the availability of vaccination and screening. Poor cervical cancer screening in South Africa is influenced by lack of resources, limited knowledge also plays a role. These campaigns increase knowledge and could increase HPV vaccine uptake – even among those who are older than the age group our government is currently targeting and supporting with the cervical screening program. In the community one cannot talk about a disease and not mention options for prevention and treatment.
How does your work impact society?
Communities are better informed about HPV and its associated diseases, HPV vaccination, and available screening programs. The work we generate from HPV epidemiology and surveillance projects provides useful information for policy makers. It assists them in creating evidence-based policies.
Practically – what does this accolade, becoming an Associate Member, mean for your work?
Hopefully this will mean more opportunities for funding and collaboration with both national and internationally recognised researchers. As an early-career research I will be exposed to programs facilitated by the IDM that will assist me in becoming internationally recognised researcher and grow in my ability to become a good supervisor or mentor.
What do you hope to achieve, career-wise, in the long term?
I’d like to have my own research group and train students. I would like to continue with HPV epidemiology and surveillance projects as well as the community work and HPV education programs.
What do you enjoy about your work?
I enjoy both community and laboratory work. Working with communities gives me joy and knowing that the campaigns I do could improve their health. They trust in and depend on us – it’s a big responsibility. I also work with teenagers and young adults. It’s important to increase sexual transmitted infection (STI) awareness as they are the future of the country. There’s a lot of incorrect information going around in our communities and it’s important to combat this with evidence-based information. Incorrect information is dangerous, it leads people into making the wrong decisions. Where evidence-based information socialises the community in the right direction, ultimately helping them to make better health decisions.
Advice to early-career researchers looking to follow in similar footsteps?
I was fortunate to be part of the research group with the environment that supported and opened training opportunities for me. My mentor recognised my potential and supported me. I was listened to, critiqued, and encouraged towards a direction that was a good fit for me. I received great guidance which helped my outlook and played a role in my being where I am now. Even if you don’t find these within your research group there are beneficial programs that are designed to support students and early-career researchers in the Health Science Faculty and the IDM. Students and/ or early-career researchers should make use of these programs as they can support you towards right direction.