Dr Ntsoaki Joyce Malebo does not come from the perfect family, did not have an easy time at school, did not enrol in university and fly through the course, nor did she do the course she initially wanted to, but today she has a doctorate degree.
“When I was young I stayed with my grandparents in the Eastern Cape, and only when I got to high school did I move to Bloemfontein to live with my mom, who was working as a nurse,” said Ntsoaki.
Ntsoaki recalls how big an adjustment that move was, coming from a small town where she knew everyone and everyone knew her, to a city where she only knew her mom and whom she did not see that often.
Her mom’s job as a nurse entailed working shifts, so the young Ntsoaki had to figure things out for herself: like how to catch taxis on her own, something that she had not needed to do back in the Eastern Cape, how to get her school books, how to cook meals and how to deal with spending her evenings alone while waiting for her mom to come home and all this while trying to make new friends.
“I remember how I used to enjoy those days that my mom got time off from work and we were able to spend time together and chat about how I was adjusting to big city life,” Ntsoaki said.
During high school, Ntsoaki became interested in medicine. She worked hard and after matriculation enrolled at the University of the Free State (UFS) to do a BSc. Her aim at that stage was to become a medical doctor or, failing that, a pharmacist.
However, life threw her a curve ball and sometime during her studies she realised that she was not as interested in the medical field as she had previously thought. Instead, the passion of Professor Lodewyk Kock, a lecturer of microbiology, ignited a flame in her that continues to burn fiercely.
“Lodewyk gave a course on the different life cycles of yeasts, explaining all the interesting things you could do with yeasts,” Ntsoaki said, adding that it was the passion with which he taught that caught her attention and swayed her in the direction of an Honours degree in microbiology instead of medicine.
“What really gripped me was his lecture on using fungi to produce high-value lipids in the cosmetics industry,” said Ntsoaki, “which is ironic; my mom was strict regarding me wearing make-up and as such I did not have an interest in dolling up. The last time, in fact, that I wore make-up was at my wedding.”
After graduation, Ntsoaki applied to do her Honours in microbiology at the UFS but was dejected when she found out that they would not accept her because she had completed her degree in four years instead of three.
A Phoenix risen from the ashes
At that point, Ntsoaki felt quite hopeless at the thought that her dream to get an Honours degree in microbiology could not be realised. A friend, who was an optometrist, offered her a job as an administrative assistant and receptionist which Ntsoaki accepted.
“It got really quiet during the winter months,” Ntsoaki said, “I had lots of time to think about things and my future and I realised that I could not spend the rest of my life working as an administrative assistant and receptionist, I still had a dream in my heart to complete my Honours in microbiology.”
At the same time, she began reading motivational books by authors the likes of Dr Phil and Steven Covey and her perspective of her situation began to change from being a victim to an overcomer of obstacles.
“Stop making excuses!” was a mantra of Dr Phil’s that she took on board. She went from being negative to thinking thoughts like: “Don’t just sit back and take it, thinking that you can’t go back, that no university will take you in, that you don’t have money, that your mom doesn’t have money, don’t dwell on these things, just go out and do it.”
Finally, Ntsoaki was spurred into action by her newfound belief in herself and she applied at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). They were willing to consider her application but needed a reference letter from a Professor who had taught her at undergraduate level.
According to Ntsoaki, something strange happened at this juncture. She approached Professor Killian, who had taught her a microbiology class, asking him to write her the referral letter. He asked her why she had not applied at the UFS. She explained that she had but was denied because of taking four years instead of three to complete her degree.
“I will write you the letter,” he said, “on the condition that you apply at the UFS again.”
Ntsoaki did as she was asked and the following year she sat with two acceptance letters in her hand, one from Wits and another from her old university.
Ntsoaki remembers feeling awkward about going back to the UFS after having been rejected by them initially, but the realisation that her mom would not be able to pay for her accommodation and living expenses if she had to go to Johannesburg meant that her mind had been made up for her.
“I just decided that I would do it for my mom, swallowed my pride and went back,” she said, adding that on top of everything, she now had to deal with being the oldest person in the class.
Another mantra, this time taken from the book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey, provided Ntsoaki with the impetus and strength to get through the initial adjustment phase. The mantra was short and effective – begin with the end in mind, which Ntsoaki appended to: The end of this is me graduating with an Honours degree.
Climbing higher than envisaged
The end of matters, however, far surpassed her initial expectations. In 2005, Ntsoaki not only graduated with an Honours degree in microbiology, but did so having obtained distinctions in microbiology and for her mini-microbiology project.
“Lodewyk told me that I had a lot of potential as a researcher, that my mini-project was proof of that and that it needed to be published,” Ntsoaki smiled, adding that the Professor also told her that he had secured money for her to do so.
Ntsoaki immediately enrolled in a Masters course and for the next two years she researched and wrote her paper, titled Oxylipin covered ascospores of Eremothecium coryli. The paper was well received nationally and internationally, and solicited the opportunity for her to present her paper at a conference in Germany.
“That was a great moment for me, people were finally recognising me for my work,” Ntsoaki recalls. Lodewyk again approached her, encouraging her to take her studies even further. “It will be a shame if you leave here without your PhD,” he told her.
Ntsoaki had fallen pregnant at this stage and it was a brave decision by her to tackle her PhD knowing that she would be a single parent.
“I missed the first few months of my PhD year to give birth to my baby girl Paballo,” Ntsoaki recalled but quickly added, “thankfully my now husband’s parents offered to look after Paballo while I was at university and my mom stepped in to help wherever she could. If it was not for their help, I would not have my PhD today.”
Since completing her PhD, Ntsoaki has been involved at the Centre for Applied Food Safety for the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein as a Postdoctoral Fellow. Ntsoaki says that the most rewarding element of her career has only come to light in the last few years of her work.
“I have been loving supervising students while I have been busy with my postdoc and three have graduated with Masters degrees,” she said proudly. One of the reasons that she enjoys the mentoring facet of her job so much is the fact that she knows that she is sowing into the future of South Africa in training up young researchers.
Her advice to young girls is to work very hard during high school to ensure that they get the results that they need in order to get into the programme that they want to be in and then once in to deal properly with the temptations that will come their way to rule out any possibility of dropping out.
“Whenever you face challenges, just remember that it is these challenges that will help to mould you as a person and in the end make you a better scientist,” she said knowingly.