Dr Kwezi Mzilikazi, a woman defined by passion not circumstance
In a small village in Transkei, a young girl stood in front of her parents’ mirror, gently stroking her stomach, confused and scared.
“I was 16 when I fell pregnant with my son, still at school and all of a sudden very unsure of my future,” said Dr Kwezi Mzilikazi, the Director of the South African PhD Project, a programme of the National Research Foundation (NRF).
Kwezi said that she was very fortunate to have parents who were supportive of her. After the birth of her child, they took him in as their own and cared for him in order for Kwezi to complete her schooling and attend university.
Kwezi, who has her PhD in Zoology, said that even though that time was tumultuous, she learnt a lot about herself. She is glad that she has been able to take that hardship and turn it into a message that she now shares with thousands of young women in schools and churches across the country.
“My unplanned pregnancy did not have to define me, nor keep me from studying further.”
Apart from the stresses that come with being a pregnant teenager and mom, Kwezi also had to overcome the normal difficulties associated with growing up in a rural village – no power, no running water at school, let alone science labs or microscopes. She was just one of 85 learners in a class.
“Our matric Biology text book had a microscope on the front jacket but the first time I actually saw one was in first year of university when I also got to use it.”
Kwezi had to make herself stand out in order to get the teachers’ attention. Breaks were spent in the library reading books to improve her English. In 1994, she became one of the first Eastern Cape learners to write the South African exams. Having excelled, her parents encouraged her to pursue a career as a medical doctor but Kwezi was not too keen.
“No one goes to see a doctor when they are happy, they only go when they are sick and or in pain and tense and anxious… That was not appealing to me and I did not want to become a doctor but at the same time I did not know what I wanted to do.”
She ended up taking a BSc course to placate her parents, majoring in Zoology and Chemistry and later graduating with honours in Zoology from the University of Transkei. It was during this time that she became interested in Zoology. She then enrolled for a Masters of Zoology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
Her supervisor was Professor Barry Lovegrove who played a huge role in her studies and life at that time. Having seen potential in her, he encouraged her to aim high academically, but to also take time out to enjoy life and to learn things outside the research laboratory.
“He taught me how to snorkel and he gave me the most important piece of advice about being a scientist.” “You are playing an international game now, in that sphere, no one cares that you are black or that you are a woman! If someone in Japan reads your paper they are not thinking along those lines. The only thing they are thinking about is ‘is the science in this paper sound? Is it good and novel enough to publish?’”
Following her Masters, Kwezi continued with PhD at the UKZN where she specialised as an animal physiologist, looking at how animals function, how they get food and how they use that food to fuel basic physiological processes. She then became intrigued by the question of how animals survive unfavourable conditions like extreme cold, heat, etc.
Known as evolutionary physiology, Kwezi had to overcome the fact that the research available to her then came from studies that had been conducted in the northern hemisphere.
“All the animals studied in the northern hemisphere hibernate and then burn their own body fat to come out of their self-induced sleep. This is not always the case in South Africa.”
The woodland door mouse, which Kwezi thinks is the “coolest” mammal, decreases its body temperature to 10 Celsius. To rouse itself back to life it uses the environmental temperature in the form of the sun’s radiation.
Kwezi said she spent months out in the field to collect all the data she needed but that the effort was worth it. Not only did she earn her PhD but she was also propelled into the spotlight, winning the first-ever South African Women in Science Award in the category for the best PhD student.
That award opened many doors for Kwezi, including a senior position as a Lecturer at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) and later on a prestigious Alexander von Humboldt postdoctoral fellowship at Marburg University in Germany.
“I had a lot of fun during that time but in hindsight I realised that I had just allowed myself to be swept up into a vortex that carried me down a road I had not paid careful attention to nor planned.”
After a year’s sojourn to engage in her postdoc, Kwezi returned to NMMU to her old lab where she stayed until she took up a position at the University of Pretoria in 2012 as the Head of the Graduate Support Hub.
Dr Carol Nonkwelo, Director of the Department of Research and Innovation Support at the University of Pretoria describes Kwezi as passionate about postgraduate students and strongly believes in and drives the national goals toward improving the number of highly qualified postgraduates in the country. Mentoring the next generation of scholars and professionals is important to her.
In a natural escalation of her passion for postgraduates, Kwezi took up the position as Director of the South African PhD Project, an initiative of the NRF to build a critical mass of highly educated and skilled South Africans who can contribute to the country’s economic growth and global competitiveness.
“I love the idea of linking people up to opportunities, whether linking a student up to a potential PhD supervisor or making funds available to students to go and present their work at seminars or conferences.”
“Only people with PhD qualifications can supervise PhD candidates, and because only 41% of all lecturers in South Africa have their doctorates, it is imperative that we grow our doctorate base.”
Kwezi hopes that we will eventually be able to turn the country into a Pan-African hub for doctoral training, a reality which could ultimately contribute to a better life for all South Africans.
With this in mind, Kwezi has a message for all South Africans but especially young women whom she believes have many more opportunities now than women of the past.
“Decide what you want to do and then put off instant gratification for a little while. Dedicate the first few years of your life towards getting a PhD, so that when you are at your best, qualification wise, you have the best opportunity to negotiate better deals socially and financially.”