Posted on August 20, 2021
Professor Tivani Phosa Mashamba-Thompson, who was appointed as Deputy Dean of Research and Postgraduate Studies for the Faculty of Health Sciences at UP with effect from 1 January 2021, didn’t seem destined for career success.
Apart from her mother, a teacher – who believed she wasn’t fulfilling her potential and who constantly encouraged her daughter with “you can do more” – Prof Mashamba-Thompson’s biography starts off as a meandering path to nowhere.
Shunted from a leading school in the Tsonga region of Limpopo when the boarding facilities closed down because of political unrest, to one near her village where she doesn’t remember being taught much, she ended up at another that involved an hour-long commute.
Prof Mashamba-Thompson makes light of it now. When she effectively didn’t learn anything for a year because the teachers or the students were constantly on strike, she laughs it off by saying it was “my gap year”, and bemoans her daily early morning trip by taxi to the other school as “terrible – I’m not a morning person”.
Fortunately, a matric winter school organised by Wits helped save her matric year, and she found herself at what was then Wits Technicon, studying mining. She thought it was a good choice: she would easily find a job at a decent salary and, with a shortage of women in the field, she wouldn’t have to compete much for a top position.
The turning point came when the first-years were sent on an outing to a diamond mine in Cullinan.
“That was the first and last day of my interest in that course,” she said. To top it all, she is asthmatic and claustrophobic, hardly conducive to her career choice. “So I had another gap year, to think about what I really wanted to do.”
And her decision? “Actually, not much.” Wanting to experience life outside South Africa, she left for the UK on a holiday visa. Quite unexpectedly, the graph of her meandering path began to peak. Her first professional job was in a food microbiology lab, which she enjoyed, along with some part-time computer courses. This helped her clinch a laboratory job at the National Health Service (NHS) where her manager motivated for her to win a scholarship to the University of Surrey. She was one of only five in the county, and the only non-Brit, to be selected. “I worked really hard, and really appreciated that, after not having had direction.”
Eight years later, Prof Mashamba-Thompson found her niche as a multi-disciplinary biomedical scientist for the NHS. Her initial healthcare foundation two-year course had led to an applied biomedical science degree and then honours, and her trajectory skyrocketed. More than that, she had found her focus: point-of-care diagnostics.
Her mother, back home in Mulamula village in Limpopo, had not been able to be easily diagnosed with motor neurone disease, to which she succumbed in 2007. “Her condition was exacerbated because of poor access to disease diagnostics due to where she lived,” said Prof Mashamba-Thompson.
After a postgraduate diploma in biomedical science with point-of-care testing as a major at the University of Greenwich, she realised her skills and career interest would be best placed in settings with limited access to laboratory infrastructure. And so she came back to South Africa, this time with a plan. Needing to retrain to be registered as a biomedical scientist, she did the required internship in molecular diagnostic services, simultaneously registering for a master’s at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
She completed it in six months, graduating summa cum laude, with one external international examiner scoring her 100% for her dissertation. “I was shocked. And so excited. That was the first time I realised that research is for me. I just had to understand systems and apply them, so I thought, ‘Okay, let’s try the PhD’,” which she did, in Public Health.
Then came a year-long Harvard Medical School Global Clinical Scholars Research Training programme, followed by the 2019/2020 CIHR Canadian HIV Trials Network international postdoctoral fellowship.
Prof Mashamba-Thompson keeps giving credit to her mentors, from the Wits professor at the matric winter school to the NHS lab manager, Elizabeth Berry, who motivated her to apply for the scholarship; Prof Mosa Moshabela at UKZN, who welcomed her to Rural Health; her PhD supervisors, Prof Paul Drain of the University of Washington and Prof Benn Sartorius of Oxford University; and now Prof Lehana Thabane of McMaster University in Canada with whom she is working to stimulate transformative research in health sciences at UP.
What Prof Mashamba-Thompson neglects to mention is how she has become a mentor, and an inspiration and icon to others, and not only academically.
Her present passion is to see everyone have access to a COVID-19 diagnosis and vaccination, and is spreading the word with her revamped Twitter handle of @Tivani #Stop_vaccine_Inequality Thompson.
On the day we meet online, she is wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “self love” in large letters to celebrate having received her second jab at UP that morning. “Cheers to life, coffee dates and dressing up with masks that match our outfits. Thanks @Faculty_HSUP for the efficient and friendly vaccination service,” she tweeted.
And one of her proudest successes is that she is part of a national study aimed at optimising the implementation of COVID-19 point-of-care diagnostics in Gauteng, Limpopo and Western Cape.
How would she encourage other women to achieve? “Find your niche, find what really keeps you awake at night. Focus on that. It will work out if it’s our passion. Don’t deviate and take other paths just because that’s where the money or the limelight is.”
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