A bumpy but successful academic journey

After completing high school, many students aspire to move on to the next step of their academic journey. My path took an unfortunate turn, as the marks I attained were too low for admission into the University degrees I intended to study. As a consequence, I found myself taking some languishing three involuntary gap-years, sitting at home in the township, with a seemingly stagnant career. However, like every fairy tale, my journey continues ‘happily ever after’, as I have managed to obtain three degrees amongst other numerous accolades. I am Keith Ncube, a doctoral student in Pharmacology at the University of Pretoria.

During my high school studies, I found the complex structure of chemicals such an intriguing concept. Our chemistry teacher narrated how some of these chemicals are used in the treatment of various diseases, and this ignited a passion within me to pursue a career in health sciences. However, this zeal quickly diminished, as the grades I obtained during my final exams were not sufficient for admission into programs such as Pharmacy and Medicine. For three consecutive years, I tried applying for alternative degrees at various universities without any success. Just as I had lost hope, I received admission to study a BSc in Medical Sciences at the University of Pretoria, a turning point which I reckon was the true birth of my academic journey.

Transitioning from a period of inactivity, I found the acceptance into University to be a privilege, and I prioritized my studies. As a result, I managed to pass most of my modules with distinction during my first year. This enabled me to work as a tutor for chemistry (my old forgotten passion) during my second year of studies. Engaging with students during tutoring made me realize the massive gap between the content taught during matric, and the more complex concepts that students encounter during University studies.

Myself, with some of the students we mentored in the Yakhanani High School mentorship program.

Then, I came together with individuals from various fields of study to start up and serve as a coordinator for the Yakhanani High School Mentorship Project, which is aimed at grooming and preparing high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds for the transition from high school into the tertiary environment. I have continuously utilized this platform to share my journey and inspire young students, and to advise them on how to maneuver around potential hurdles that they may encounter in their academic journey.

Upon completing my undergraduate degree with distinction, I was introduced to the world of academic research through admission into an Honours degree in Pharmacology. I was assigned with a project that aims to develop laboratory models of breast cancer that optimally mimic the attributes of cancer in the human body. These models are then used to study the potential effect of new anti-cancer drugs.

I passed the Honours degree with distinction, and as a result, I was accepted as a Masters student received an NRF scholarship which afforded me an opportunity to continue with the research and sharpen my skills as a Master’s student within the same field. With support from my supervisors, I managed to grow as a young researcher, and scooped several accolades within the country and internationally. The most significant of these was being chosen to be amongst 600 students across the globe to meet and engage with Nobel Prize winners at the prestigious Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting (Germany) in 2018. In the same year, I presented part of my research results at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology in Kyoto, Japan. In addition to presentation in various national conferences within South Africa, I also got the opportunity to act as an academic supervisor for junior students within our Department of Pharmacology. I have since completed my Master’s degree (Magna Cum laude), and I am pursuing my Doctoral degree in Pharmacology.

Myself, posing for a picture with Anja Maria-Antonia Karliczek, the Federal Minister of Education and Research in Germany (left) and Professor Michael Levitt, a Pretoria-born Nobel Prize winner (right), at the Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting in Germany (2018).

My shift from a seemingly futureless young teenage boy to an established health scientist has ignited a passion within me to inspire upcoming academics that ‘failure is sometimes a necessary detour, and not a dead end’. This journey within the past decade has offered me a wealth of experiences which I would like to share with academics and individuals who are aspiring to pursue a career as an academic. Some of these experiences include transitioning from high school into tertiary education, how to select a good supervisor, maintaining resilience, and the craft of scientific writing and presenting amongst other additional topics. I look forward to using the SAYAS blog to share these experiences.

Working and swiping my way towards a guiding thread

At the age of 32, it feels like a very long time ago that I worked as a journalist in my early 20s. It is the profession I saw myself growing into when I was younger and the one that I approached with vigour after school through various internships. My ongoing freelance work next to my first-year university studies at a local newspaper in Germany offered me a glimpse into the politics embedded in conveying stories through this medium. Realising its limitations made me pursue my anthropological studies even harder, which, unlike the form of journalism I had encountered, permitted a long-term, in-depth approach to analysing everyday phenomena. At the same time, it allowed me to cultivate my passion for writing. My university studies also led me to permanently re-locate to South Africa 10 years ago.

Fast forward: currently, I am a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Cape Town. Here, I have spent the past three years doing research and writing my thesis on the behavioural use of the dating application Tinder. This involved using Tinder to recruit study participants and grappling with how – and with whom – intimacy is cultivated in Cape Town, starting with right and left swipes on online profiles. The focus of the ethnography resulting from this lies on how individuals perceive themselves and others in a partially cybernated process of relating and the ways in which these perceptions are reflected in interactions. Identity formation as well as the interplay of structural influences and individual behaviour also played a crucial part in my ethnographic studies on male refugees in Cape Town and on suburban neighbourhood surveillance. Both were awarded with a distinction and published as monographs with Langaa RPCIG. I am also currently contributing to a research project on professional identity formation among first-in-family students at the faculty of engineering at UCT.

My journey thus far writes itself rather easily. However, it is only now that I feel I can draw out a consistent, guiding tread across it. For the most part, things seemed topsy-turvy and very much characterised by unknown factors, including visa issues and concerns about securing financial support. What I discovered relatively early as a theme and as fuel to keep me pursuing my studies is a passion to engage with the lived experiences of people. Looking back, I can now claim this to be evident in my endeavours to date, just like my profound interest in facilitating dialogue across and beyond disciplines. Yet, these things only filtered through more clearly with time. I consider myself lucky in having developed a genuine desire to immerse myself in study contexts in an engaged, enthusiastic manner. It is even luckier that I had the opportunity to nourish this desire throughout my scholarly career so far. This includes my studies at UCT and my work as a Junior Research Fellow at the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD) at the University of KwaZulu Natal. The most interesting moments have been the ones in which heads were conceptually bumped. Working on and with digital technologies for my PhD got me involved in the Digital Humanities (DH) community and I am among the founding members of the Digital Humanities African Network (DHAfricaN), which is a needed extension of DH scholarship towards perspectives of the global South. I also started regularly contributing to workshops and conferences across the globe, which the ongoing global pandemic has rendered more accessible in an online format. These engagements have been particularly exciting, as they opened up a lot of ground for discussion and, thus, for me to spin the proverbial ‘guiding tread’ of my voyage further.

I am still eager to extend discussions even further and make them accessible to a wider audience – not specific to disciplines and not even necessarily limited to the academic ivory tower. This is why I started writing my own blog (The Junck report), which is my way of marrying my love for social anthropology on the one hand and my persistent devotion to journalism on the other. As I am typing away on my thesis and thinking about how my many years at university (mostly at UCT) have shaped me, I want to share more of my experiences and, through them, connect with people on a similar or perhaps rather different journey. The SAYAS blog is a great opportunity to do so.