“The progression of HIV in infants and adults is very rapid when they are not on an antiretroviral treatment programme,” said Dr Christina Thobakgale, Senior Lecturer and Researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
Christina proved this during the research she conducted for her PhD and is particularly proud that, at the relatively young age of 36, she has been able to contribute to the understanding of the cellular and viral factors that influence disease progression in HIV-infected infants and adults.
These research findings have been presented at 10 international and four national meetings and have had an impact on changing treatment guidelines for children worldwide.
“Her PhD graduation was not only a personal achievement but her success was an inspiration for her family, community and thousands of other black women who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and settings,” said Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim, Director of the Columbia University-Southern Africa (CU-SA) AIDS Training Programme.
Quarraisha met Christina through the CU-SA Fogarty AIDS Training Programme which is awarded to promising students in order to give them the opportunity to acquire laboratory-based technical skills at Harvard University.
Quarraisha’s first impressions of Christina were that she was bright, enthusiastic, passionate and committed to being an excellent scientist with a desire to make a difference to women’s lives. “I maintain contact with all the trainees on the CU-SA Fogarty AIDS Training Programme and I have been amazed at how those traits in Christina have become stronger over the years.” She predicts that Christina will be a successful scientist and make several more game-changing breakthroughs in HIV and women’s health.
Christina, who is now focusing on HIV in adults to understand why the disease progresses faster or slower in different people in order to contribute to a vaccine that will slow the disease down, hails from Doornspruit, Ga-Mashashane, a rural village in Limpopo. She has five siblings and was raised by a single parent, her mom, who worked in the kitchen of a local hospital.
Although finances were short, Christina said her mom made sure that her children went to the Motse Maria High School, which is considered one of the better schools in the area.
“We had good science and biology laboratories and our teachers were great; but there were no computers then and we learnt to type on an old-fashioned typewriter. The first time I got to work on a computer was when I was in my Honours year at university.”
Feeling the pinch
Growing up, Christina was aware that there were financial constraints in her family, but it was only later on in life that she was able to compare what she had to what many other people have access to.
Her mom’s financial struggles motivated her to make the best use of the resources at her disposal though and to work hard in order to get a degree and make a better life for herself and her family.
“Just to get into university was a struggle. My mom didn’t have money for my fees so I queued for three days to speak to someone about applying for a loan through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. My mom went with me on the first day, but on the second day I went alone, because I just knew my marks would be good enough to get the loan and the desire to change my life was massive, it gave me the strength and the patience to stand in the queue.”
During her Honours year, she was able to do some tutoring which helped tremendously with the family’s financial situation. Towards the end of her Honours, however, she was caught between the decision to enter the working world and earn money to contribute more towards the family or to study further.
In the end, an advertisement asking for students to apply for bursaries to study a Masters course at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and her desire to study further swayed her decision.
She was told that she could continue tutoring at UKZN if she was accepted into the Masters programme and that was the tipping point for her. Her mom was a little hesitant of her leaving home and going all the way to KwaZulu-Natal, but Christina was set on furthering her studies.
Charity begins at home
“It was the best decision I have ever made because so many doors were opened to me because of it,” Christina said, adding that she has been able to help her siblings get through their tertiary education even when she was still studying. “I think that I have been able to motivate them to aspire to better things too, because they have seen how much one can achieve having come from nothing.”
Christina said that she lives by the motto that charity begins at home but that she enjoys contributing to South Africa on a larger scale through lecturing just as much. Close to her heart is the pandemic that is HIV-AIDS and the way in which it affects the young women of South Africa.
“Young women have traditionally been dependent on older men and as a result are often subjected to contracting this virus because of the situations that they find themselves in. But I have a message for them; get an education so that you can look after yourself and do not have to rely on a man. If young women can become empowered, we can change the face of HIV,” Christina asserted.
Christina is involved in an exciting mentoring programme that is run through the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS) in partnership with the New York Academy of Science. The aim of the project is to encourage young woman to take up careers in maths, science, engineering and technology by pairing them with a professional in these areas, starting at Grade 10 through high school and university until they graduate with their PhDs. Christina is hoping that the programme will help many young women to be inspired and to take up a career in science.
“My question to all the young ladies of South Africa is this: Do you have a dream for a better future? What is stopping you from achieving it? Do you have fears that you won’t make it? Speak to people out there as there are many people that have walked that path and are willing to help. Don’t give up too quickly and always be on the lookout for opportunities. You just need to say that you will do whatever it takes to get in and you are halfway there.”