Advancing socio-economic opportunities for women through science, technology, engineering, mathematics and innovation

As South Africa marks Women's Month, the Department of Science and Innovation is celebrating the achievements – from pioneering research to exciting innovations – of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and innovation (STEMI).

 

Zakithi Mkhize takes on HIV

 

A curious nature and a drive to solve health problems were instrumental in Zakithi Mkhize's decision to pursue a career in STEMI. A PhD candidate in virology at the HIV Pathogenesis Programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, Mkhize is a woman on a mission to solve the HIV challenge.

 

Describing herself as a scientist, science communicator and content creator, her passion is using science to save the world. It is this that led her to HIV research.  With a master's of medical science cum laude, she is currently working on an HIV cure development.  Her research focuses particularly on understanding the mechanisms that govern HIV latency.

 

In HIV latency, the virus remains dormant (not replicating) in some infected cells, hidden in tissues throughout the body.  It can remain there for decades and, when a person stops taking their antiretrovirals, active replication resumes.

 

Studying the mechanisms that govern this phenomenon will help lead to a cure for the virus.

 

Mkhize's work has propelled her to the international stage. She has presented her research at three international conferences, most recently the AIDS 2022 world conference in Canada.  She was named one of the top 50 inspiring women in the field of STEM by InspiringFifty in 2021, and one of Junior Chamber International South Africa's Top Ten Outstanding Young Persons in 2022. 

 

She was also a top 10 finalist in the ever-popular science communication competition, FameLab, and has won several other science communication competitions.

 

"Science communication is the key to bridging the gap between scientists and communities.  After all, we do this research for them, so what's the point if they don't understand it? And we don't care to teach it?" she says.

 

She believes that science communication will bridge the divide between scientists and people, preventing problems like the vaccine hesitancy that we witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

Social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, while often used to spread pseudo-science, are also making real science more accessible to ordinary people.

 

Known as "BlackGirlScientist" on YouTube, Mkhize is a social influencer making a mark not in fashion or pop culture, but in the vital field of science, sharing her journey as a young black woman and encouraging others to join her. She started her channel to inspire young people to pursue a career in STEMI, and her videos have had over 47 000 views to date.

 

When she is not busy with her research or on social media, Mkhize spends her time helping younger students, encouraging learners in primary and high school, and training junior students in the laboratory.

 

"I want to break the scientist stereotype, by putting a new face to the word 'science'.  I hope that one day someone will think of scientists where a black woman is included," she adds.

 

She plans to establish an organisation that will help young people on their journeys in various STEMI fields, and interact with learners at school level to raise knowledge and awareness of science.  Instead of waiting for change, she wants to leave her mark as a driver of change in the STEMI sector.

 

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