DURBAN: For a young Zodwa Dlamini growing up in the rural village of Mahlabathini, near Ulundi, in KwaZulu-Natal, science was a fascinating puzzle with endless possibilities.
“From a young age I loved science and my teachers encouraged me to pursue it further because I was a bright student. I never thought I would end up in academia. I just knew that I didn’t want to be a medical doctor because I didn’t want to have to deal with patients,” said Dlamini.
The deputy vice-chancellor of research, innovation and engagements at the Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT), Dlamini spoke on the sidelines of a five-day research and innovation conference hosted by her department in Durban last week.
The conference was attended by academics from institutions around the world, leaders in government and representatives from the private sector with the aim of stimulating discussions and collaborations on various issues including medicine, entrepreneurship and green technology.
“Being a professor is not just about publishing our work so that we get recognition. We need our work to have a socio-economic impact and develop innovations to change people’s lives, so we must find ways to take science to the people and not make it a field of just a select few,” she said.
The 55-year-old scientist became shy and self-conscious when asked about her personal life but her face lit up with excitement when she talked about anything related to research and science.
As a specialist in the field of molecular oncology, Dlamini’s latest fascination is precision medicine which she said was going to change the way people received medical treatment.
“Precision medicine is very close to my heart as it is an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle,” she said.
This approach allowed doctors and researchers to predict more accurately which treatment and prevention strategies for a particular disease would work in which groups of people.
Dlamini explained that this is in contrast to a “one-size-fits-all” approach, in which the treatment of diseases and prevention strategies were developed for the average person, with less consideration for the differences between individuals.
She said that was one of the reasons MUT had chose to have a session where delegates explored pharmacogenomics.
“In future, we envision a comprehensive disease classification that combines information from biomedical-research, public health, and health care delivery. This will take communities towards advancing knowledge of disease pathogenesis and improving health,” said the professor.
As a representative of the department of health on the scientific advisory board on preclinical drug development, which falls within the Department of Science of Technology, Dlamini said South Africa had great potential to be one of the leading countries in groundbreaking medicinal developments.
“Our challenge at the moment is that we don’t have enough doctors who are specialists in different fields. That’s what we desperately need as a country, more so because some of our doctors are leaving to work abroad and most of those who stay behind are in the private sector,” she remarked.
Dlamini’s journey to the helm of the research unit at MUT has not been an easy one as she started her career as an administration clerk for the provincial health department after her good matric marks failed to secure her a scholarship in 1983.
“When I finally got a scholarship the following year it was in pharmacy so I was excited because I thought I wouldn’t have to interact with patients. Until I went to do my practicals at Prince Mshiyeni Hospital during my second year then I realised what the job actually entailed, so I quit. But I didn’t tell my sponsors that I’d enrolled for something else,” she recalled with a laugh.
She eventually graduated with a BSc in biochemistry and microbiology and did not stop studying until her postdoctoral in molecular oncology. In 2002, her career in academia officially commenced with a lecturing position at Wits University.
Since then, Dlamini has worked at several universities around the country and has also regularly been invited to give lectures abroad.
As an internationally-renowned specialist in her field, with numerous awards under her belt, Dlamini could work for any institution, but in 2015 decided on MUT.
“Throughout my career I’ve worked at universities but I was at a stage where I wanted to work at a local institution where I could make an even greater difference. And, as a university of technology based in a township, MUT has great potential to really change the lives of people in uMlazi and KZN as a whole,” said the Ballito resident.
Dlamini wants MUT to have a centre of entrepreneurship which would be linked to a technology park where school children from all over the province could visit. This, she hoped, would make science and innovation accessible and also contribute to the growth of the local economy and skills development.
“Not everyone can afford a higher education, but that does not mean they can’t think or come up with brilliant ideas. We just have to find ways to give them a platform and guidance to prove what they are capable of doing.”
Talking about what kept her up at night, she said it was thinking of ways she could use her skills to make other people’s lives better. Dlamini conceded that her work consumed her life but she always made time to spend with her family.
“I’m also a sucker for a good movie, especially when it has Denzel Washington in it,” she said with a giggle.