Ms Keabetswe T. Ncube is a PhD candidate at the Agricultural Research Council, Biotechnology Platform (ARC-BTP), registered PhD Genetics with University of Kwa-Zulu Natal focusing her studies on goat growth and meat genomics. Ms Ncube holds a Bachelor of Technology in Biotechnology from Tshwane University of Technology and a Master of Science in Life Sciences from University of South Africa specializing in Statistical Genomics and her dissertation focused on growth and maternal lineages of South African goats. She has been named a Top Outstanding Young Person in academic excellence by Junior Chamber International South Africa (2017) and is the Next Einstein Forum ambassador for South Africa. She is the recipient of the National Research Foundation Innovation Doctoral Scholarship Award as well as the Agricultural Research Council Professional Development Scholarship which rewards excellence among young scientists and researchers. She participated in the United States Forest Services International Visitor Program where she completed her research exchange program at the USDA-ARS Animal Genomics Improvement Lab in Beltsville, Maryland, USA. Ms. Ncube’s work with ARS enhances ongoing work by the ARS lab on the USDA-USAID Feed the Future Livestock Improvement Project as a visiting scientist. She is also part of the ARC-BTP’s Community-Based Breeding Program which focuses on livestock improvement and the application of genomic studies in rural communities.
Why did you get into STEM?
I grew up in village in Pella, North West Province and my parents had indigenous livestock such as goats, sheep, and cattle and a whole population of dogs which I enjoyed looking after and bathing. As a child I was fascinated by the various livestock breeds and their unique characteristics such as growth, hardiness and not to mention their beautiful phenotypes. As I grew up I was also exposed to large scale commercial farming where livestock breeds grew faster and bigger. I then realized that much of the low productivity was attributed to uncharacterized village goats that farmers did not know how to optimally manage with the limited resources at their disposal. Through this, I had a growing concern about these variations and throughout my academic journey, I came to realize that science can be used as a tool to resolve the issues that are faced worldwide. So, I have always looked for any opportunity to study science and more especially to be in a scientific field that can help me not only to become an excellent academic but also to be able to use science to change the lives of people, more especially, in the community that raised me – as a way of giving back. I then studied Biotechnology which led me to my doctoral studies today, and I am very privileged that for my postgraduate studies I met someone by the name of Dr. Farai Muchadeyi who has the same passion of community development as myself. She has been my supervisor for 8 years and through her my passion for science keeps growing.
What do you consider your greatest achievements?
My greatest achievement is to have an opportunity to use science to improve the lives of people. And for this I will forever be grateful to God and to the ARC-BTP. Through the first phase of my doctoral studies we purchased animals from a village where I grew up. Since then the community is even happier that through that period their lives changed, not only financially but also, they had an opportunity to learn how to improve their livestock through the knowledge exchange both practically and theoretically. They learned these during my fortnightly farm visits as well as the workshops that we have held through the ARC-BTP. Now, they are able to manage their livestock in a way that can bring them more income. For me, changing and helping to improve someone’s life is an even greater achievement than a million awards.
Another big achievement was to be granted an opportunity to participate in a yearlong research visit in Maryland, USA where I worked with the United Stated Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Services. This is where my growth accelerated. I was out of my comfort zone, I had never been that far away from my family, especially my mother. But that pushed me to work even harder, to learn to live and to adapt in a completely different environment. I had an opportunity to learn from and be trained by a team of excellent researchers in livestock genomics and improvement by the names of Dr. Curt van Tassell, Dr. Ben Rosen, Dr. Gordon Spangler and Dr. Jennifer Woodward-Greene. Being with them has equipped me with more knowledge and skills to apply back in my country and in my community. It is always great to go out there and learn from the best, not only to learn but also to come back home to implement the knowledge and skills.
Being nominated the Next Einstein Forum Ambassador for South Africa was both an exciting shock and an honor, having to be aligned with such a great name as “Einstein” and having to represent my whole country, and to be recognized as an excellent researcher is beyond. Through this I have had and I continue to have an opportunity to engage at an even larger scale and to reach out to women, children and various people from various field. I am proud to fly the South African Flag.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM and how did you overcome them?
Being a young, black, African excellent academic woman is on its own the biggest challenge. Winnie Mandela once said that being an African black woman, you fight three battles: one is that you are an African, then you are black then you are a woman. It’s a daily struggle and rising and thriving as an upcoming young scientist is not easy. But through hard work and grace we persevere, thrive and push through. I’ve been told to my face that I’m too young, too girly, I won’t make it, I’m over ambitious and many other things that can break one’s spirit and kill your dream. I would admit that all that comes as a blow and sometimes slows me down a bit but I always have a great come back through God’s grace.
Apart from God, I have great family support. My mother, Mojaki Ncube, is always there for me. She gives me the best comfort and support that amazes me all the time. My mom taught me how to better manage my emotions in a way that I don’t get slowed down and they don’t affect my work. She has also taught me to apply the principle of a deaf frog – that, in order to succeed, I must be deaf to negative criticism.
What is your advice to budding women in STEM?
Apart from making Christ your rock and your refuge, always keep in mind that, your background and gender are never an excuse and a stumbling block – use them as motivation and thrive. I am a female goat geneticist who goes into the kraal, chases goats, catches and carries them – a work that is said to be for men – and this amaze so many people, especially the farmers we work with. Fitting in is not necessary, being unique is the new cool. Don’t be afraid to take up a course that is not done by the majority, never bury your dreams because you are the only one in the group who thinks that way. Rather change your circle, and flow with people who will positively impact your life. Why limit yourself to the sky when you can go beyond stars and galaxies?