Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) and the Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence (SANTHE) recently co-hosted the KwaZulu-Natal heats for the international science communication and public speaking competition, FameLab.

FameLab is an opportunity for young researchers to gain invaluable skills in communicating their science. Provincial finalists go through to a national final, and the ultimate winner will represent South Africa at the international event finals.

Zakithi Mkhize, a SANTHE PhD Fellow based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, ultimately scooped the KZN FameLab crown. Zakithi’s talk focused on her research into a cure for HIV.

We sat down with her to find out more about her research, and what inspires her.

Congratulations on winning the KZN leg of FameLab! Please tell us more about your winning talk.

Thank you! The research that I spoke about is work that I am currently doing as part of my PhD. I am working on HIV cure research, focussing on a gene called ‘Tat’, which is the transactivator of transcription. This gene plays an important role in HIV replication. I am particularly investigating how genetic changes or changes in its DNA affect its ability to effectively recruit another protein (P-TEFb) which I am working with. I am doing research on the interactions between these two proteins during HIV replication, and whether the virus replicates in the body of an HIV infected person at a slower or faster rate.

Your passion for your work came through in your talk.  What was the inspiration for your career choice?

I have been interested in science from when I started studying it in high school. I was intrigued by it and always wanted to know more. That definitely inspired my degree choice when I got to university, although I actually didn’t know until I was doing a science degree that I wanted to be a scientist! My passion for helping people and changing the world was also awakened during my high school years. Helping people and changing the world; this is what I think scientists do through research.

The competition entailed a 3-minute talk, presenting your science to a lay audience. Why do you think public engagement is important for your field of research?

I think it is important for us to engage with the public because we are doing research for communities. These are communities that we serve as scientists, so I think that it is important to have a relationship with the community that we serve. We see this now with the pandemic, how people are skeptical to take the vaccine. I think that is because they were misinformed or that they are uninformed about the virus. So, we take this as a lesson that public engagement is extremely important to develop that relationship and also build trust, so that when scientists say something or advise people to do something, the community actually trusts and believes that that is what is best for them.

Your Twitter and IG handles are ‘blackgirlscientist’, with loads of exciting and engaging science content. You are also a YouTube star! Can you tell us why science communication is important for you?

The @blackgirlscientist handle is really all about me trying to encourage young people and giving them guidance, and being the kind of person I needed when I was beginning the journey. I also want to show young people that it is possible for a young black person to be a scientist, and to excel in that field. In terms of science communication, I think that it is really important to communicate with lay people, which is what FameLab encourages us (scientists) to do, so that people understand what we are doing, and building that relationship and trust with them.

What message would you like to share with young aspiring scientists?

I would really like to tell young aspiring scientists to constantly hone their skills as scientists. To read and ensure that they are on top of their game, and to put themselves out there for opportunities. It is really important to dabble in a lot of different things, because the whole process is a learning process. You want to come out at the end with as many skills as possible.


Story by Roanne Peters.