Am I different? I am a post-grad student but also just a young person

I know a lot of you think that post-graduate students have it all figured out. They have everything under control. I used to think the same thing as well. But it is not the case. We do not have it all under control. I know for sure that I do not have it all figured out. My life is not as perfect as you would think. I don’t think anybody has a perfect life. I go through the motions of everyday life like any other 26-year-old guy. I would like to believe I grapple with all sorts of issues, problems, or challenges that other people my age have. These include issues with romance, economic independence, and so forth.  Today I am just going to share in passing my romance journey.

I have a grandmother who is in her late 70s. She is a typical grandmother with typical elderly comments every time I give a call or visit her. I last saw her recently during the Easter holidays and she asked me two questions that I did not know how to answer. The first was “where is your wife, or at least a lady friend”. The second was “and what about kids”.  These are the two most annoying questions, and I just cannot bring myself to tell her that romance-wise it is just not working out for me. I know if I say that she would probably say “it is because of the big books you are always reading and that computer you treasure so much”.

And that is the problem, romance is not working out for me. I do not think it is my fault though. I buy roses and chocolates, open the door for her, hold her hand in public and I always text “good morning/night”. I think of myself as modern gentleman, if there is such of course.  However, it seems there is always something I do wrong or just cannot get right. I am not sure if it’s the fact that I am 26-year-old man who sill watches WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) or there is something else. But then come to think of it, no woman can stand a 26-year-old man who still watches WWE and gets sad when his favourite wrestler loses a match. I am not sporty and WWE bridges that gap for me, but it is just a lot for her to understand.

My point is, there is nothing “different” when you are an academic. The truth is we are all still human. I feel what others feel. I do what others do. Do I go partying? Yeah, I do.  I also like paintball shooting and quad bike riding, it is super nice. Most of the time I enjoy the company of those who are not academics. It is in this company that I get to take off my academic helmet and engage in debates about what really affects us and how can our societal problems be addressed.  Most importantly I get in touch with the truth. Those who are not guided by academic code of conducts but are yet still morally upright always remind me that at the end of the day, I belong to a community of different people with different hopes, dreams, and aspirations. It reminds me that there is more to life than sitting on my laptop the whole day and thinking about academic conferences, journal publications and critical theories. It keeps me in touch with the fact that not everything can be solved through academic research and approaches and not everything is taught and theorised. All these reminds me that, we are all human at the end of the day.

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.