SA: Rachiel Gumbo’s rare academic feat and long, winding road to a doctorate
By News 24.com
Dr Rachiel Gumbo was always destined for bigger things. Raised in the small village of Nemangwe in the Midlands Province of Zimbabwe, she has come a long way on several levels since finishing high school.
With grit and determination Gumbo has scaled the heights of academic success, obtaining her doctorate in molecular biology at Stellenbosch University’s (SU) December graduation on Tuesday (12 December).
But it wasn’t always plain sailing; she had to overcome a few challenges on the way.
The eldest of three siblings, Gumbo obtained a BSc Honours degree in biological sciences from Midlands State University in Zimbabwe in 2005, but could not continue with her studies due to a lack of grants and bursaries.
She ended up working as a laboratory assistant at Hwange Colliery Hospital Laboratory and teaching mathematics, physical science and biology to high-school learners.
But it’s a detour that has not been without its positive points; Gumbo is grateful for having had the opportunity to teach. “Teaching was an incredibly worthwhile experience as it boosted my confidence, taught me to be patient with students, to be creative and, above all, it gave me a good sense of humour.”
In 2007 the single mother of two boys moved to South Africa to further her studies, but funding was hard to come by as a non-citizen.
To make ends meet Gumbo offered private after-school lessons to learners and also did part-time tutoring with Education Matters in Cape Town before taking a job as a secretary at Forest Creations, a woodwork company in the city.
In 2018, her fortunes changed when she responded to a post from Prof Michele Miller of SU’s Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics about wanting a new student to join the Animal TB Research Group. She would later become Gumbo’s supervisor, along with Dr Tanya Kerr of the same division. “When I joined the group in 2019 my dream of continuing my studies became a reality,” she recalled.
After obtaining her BSc Honours in molecular biology from SU in 2019 she enrolled for an MSc degree in the same field. Such was the quality of her research that the master’s was upgraded to a PhD, a remarkable and rare achievement in academia.
While working on her doctorate Gumbo published seven articles in international academic journals and received a prestigious scholarship from the Germany Academic Exchange Service. She said her biggest challenge as an older international student studying at a South African university was scholarship eligibility, which threatened to derail her studies.
Gumbo’s PhD focused on developing immunological tests for improving the detection of animal tuberculosis (TB) in lions, leopards and cheetahs in SA. Animal TB is a serious chronic infectious disease caused by infection with mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis) in cattle and other domesticated animals as well as many wildlife species, with potential transmission to humans.
According to Gumbo several cheetahs, lions and leopards have died because of animal TB. Since M. bovis can be introduced into uninfected populations and species-specific immunological tests for diagnosis of animal TB are limited, she developed a diagnostic test that can distinguish among M. bovis-infected and uninfected lions, leopards and cheetahs using commercially available kits.
“The development and incorporation of species-specific diagnostic tests for routine screening of lions, leopards and cheetahs is essential for early detection of TB in wildlife to allow prompt responses from veterinarians, researchers and managers to prevent spread of infection and enhance disease control,” Gumbo explained.
“Research focusing on animal TB has a broad impact on human health, food security and the livelihoods of rural African communities who rely on ecotourism as their primary source of income. A better understanding of animal TB will help to protect Africa’s vulnerable wildlife species and unique biodiversity.”
Looking back on her journey, Gumbo said she was driven by the desire to improve the quality of life for her and her children. “When things got tough I kept reminding myself that I am doing this for my kids.”
Rooted in faith, Gumbo believes in the power of divine intervention. “I relied mainly on my faith as I juggled raising my two boys and pursuing my studies. I believe that God placed my supervisors, Prof Miller and Dr Kerr, on my path to support me professionally and personally, and to help me reach the pinnacle of academic success.”
Gumbo’s supervisors speak glowingly about her: “Rachiel was a model student and demonstrated the passion and commitment to become a scientist. Her positive attitude and warm personality have made her a ‘favourite’ in our division. We are incredibly proud of her accomplishments and look forward to having her join us as a post-doctoral fellow in 2024.”
Having had to overcome a few obstacles along the way Gumbo has a message for women who may experience similar difficulties. “Firstly, don’t let your background define you,” she says, “and do not allow anybody to tell you you can’t do it. Although tears may be shed along the way there is always light at the end of the tunnel.”
When not doing research Gumbo loves baking and trying new food recipes. “My older son loves food, so I attempt to cook different meals that I have not tried before. But sometimes I do flop.”