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Q and A with clinical microbiologist Sanelisiwe Thinasonke Duze

Young, driven and vibrant Sanelisiwe Thinasonke Duze is an associate researcher in the Wits Department of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (CMID).

Duze took time out of her maternity leave schedule for the interview.

You are new to the province as you completed your undergraduate and MSc studies at UKZN. What drove your move to Johannesburg and what is your current role in the department.

Yes, I completed my undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. My moving to Johannesburg was purely for job purposes as I was offered an internship by the National Research Foundation and they placed me at the National Cancer Registry which was then under the National Health Laboratory Services. I then Joined the NICD and worked as a Medical Scientist at the Centre for Enteric Diseases under Drs Anthony Smith and Karen Keddy before joining the University of Witwatersrand in 2018. At the University I am employed as an associate researcher in the Department of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. I am involved in research. Last year I managed to initiate my own research project as well as secure the NHLS Development Grant. My project focus is on Listeria monocytogenes. We just had the largest recorded outbreak in the world, therefore my project is looking at the phenotypic and genotypic resistance profile of L. monocytogenes to benzalkonium chloride, a disinfectant commonly used in food industries. I am also involved in the teaching and training program within the department. We now offer an Honours course in clinical microbiology of which I am the assistant course co-ordinator, I give some lectures and supervise Honours students. I also engage in some service work for the NHLS as I am a registered Medical Scientist.

Was it difficult adjusting to Johannesburg, and was it a culture shock in comparison to living in Kwa-Zulu Natal?

Not at all. I did not struggle to adjust to Johannesburg as I found the people quite friendly. I was quite impressed by the accommodating, cosmopolitan nature of the city. People were accommodating to different languages, and they don’t expect you to only be able to communicate in one language.

What are your current academic plans, and what are your long term goals?

I would like to pursue a PhD as soon as I find a project that speaks to me. The project must involve some whole genome sequencing aspect. I am currently a holder of an NHLS Research Trust Grant and I would like to continue to running my own research projects. My ultimate aim is to be an NRF rated researcher.

You have recently been involved in the first ever CMID research day. Could you tell us a little about your role in the event?

Our department is currently growing its research laboratory and most research is undertaken by the postgraduate students. This research day served as a stock take of the research activity and capacity in the department. Together with the organising committee, I was involved in an administrative capacity; dealing with communication, facilitating participation, securing sponsorships, venue etc. Unfortunately, I could not be there on the day as it came to fruition while I was on maternity leave. However, the organising committee under Puseletso Manyaka’s supervision pulled out all the stops to make the day a success.

As an associate researcher you are the textbook early career academic. What has the support been like from your department and the university in general?

I found the environment very supportive. Prof Adriano Duse and Prof Mrudula Patel have been really supportive and have provided me with unrelenting guidance and mentorship. There are also numerous courses available through the university to new staff that are very helpful. That being said, I found the financial side of starting up, especially for associate researchers who do not have a PhD very challenging.

From your current perspective, what do you see as female specific barriers to climbing the academic ladder in Science?

There are a number of issues that are barriers to climbing the academic ladder in science and one of those is maternity issues, which is often neglected. I am aware of times where women have been asked in interviews if they are pregnant or whether they were planning to have children in the near future. Fortunately, from my experience it was not the case in this institution. With that said, it is entirely possible that such questions could affect the outcome of an interview and this is not a challenge males have to do deal with. Our career as females faces a lot of breaks in between as one has to go off on maternity leave. Once you back at work you have to do deal with the daily challenges of managing a child. This inevitably has consequences on your productivity as well as your progress.

You are a young mother and an early career academic. Although it is early days, do you have any particular coping mechanisms in place yet?

I still have a lot to learn about coping, but I will have to manage. Although I am on maternity leave, I am treating it as a domestic sabbatical as I still have Honours students to supervise and a grant to manage. I think the key is learning to separate the two so that neither suffers. I think institutions can also support female scientist/staff by having day care facilities which would really assist with minimising the associated disruption of having a small child. If day care is too prohibitive, other steps can be taken to support female staff with young children. Science has highlighted the importance of breastfeeding, but how is this facilitated in our institutions? Do they provide lactation room etc.?

Motherhood can be a divisive for female scientists. There is often a choice between delaying motherhood to advance your career and trying to navigate the ladder as a mother. Do you have any insight on this debate?

I am going to be biased about this, but there is no denying that many female scientists are racing with the biological clock. Science encourages to have children before 35, but there are numerous academic milestones you have to achieve by that age as well. Ultimately, this is a personal choice, but the role of the institute, supervisor, manager or mentor is crucial, and may ultimately alter the individual career trajectory. This is another key difference between male and female academics/scientists. Women have to compete with males who do not have the same challenges. The playing field is inherently uneven.

Finally, if you had one final message for early career scientists, what would that be?

Passion is key; there will be many challenges along the way so your dedication must come from the heart otherwise you will not manage.

Source: University of the Witwatersrand