They live in our midst yet maintain a mysterious, almost ethereal aura about them.
Their complicated work embodies strength, determination and resilience and takes years of unrelenting dedication to perfect.
They are amongst the most intelligent, hard-working beings on our planet – they are scientists.
Botswana have not produced many scientists of a note – the impressive Catherine Kegakilwe Koofhethile is an obvious exception.
A proud Motswana, 37-year-old Koofhethile is desperate to raise the profile of Science in her beloved Botswana.
“I recently attended a conference in Kuwait entitled ‘Women in Science from the Developing World’ and was shocked to realise I was the only person from Botswana. We are really under-represented in Global Science matters. One of my objectives is to bring Botswana on board and establish a Women in Science National Chapter in the country,” explained Koofhethile.
“Even from a young age, I’ve always been passionate about Science research. I was born and brought up in Botswana where few women are into Science. The country is bearing the brunt of the HIV/TB epidemic but I believe that Science has the potential to solve such global health problems.”
Koofhethile’s love of Science has taken her a long way. Upon completion of her General Certificate of Education (GCE), she was offered a scholarship to the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom for a four-year Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Medical Microbiology.
Koofhethile thrived there and finished her course with a distinction, a fitting testament to the hard work and enthusiasm she displayed over the four years.
She then returned home, working as a Research Assistant at the Botswana Harvard partnership laboratory for two years. Part of her work included a research project titled ‘HIV-1C diversity and compartmentalization in women in Botswana’.
This was to leave a lasting impression on Koofhethile, as she explains, “This formed the basis of my research interests as it gave me an opportunity to test myself and see if I was really interested in research work. It was a learning curve for me. Although it didn’t breed any publications, I used it as a platform to learn research techniques. I then went back to the UK to read for a Masters Degree in Immunology at the University of Birmingham.”
After completing her Masters, gaining a merit, Koofhethile spent the next two-and-a-half years at the University of Oxford as a Graduate Research Assistant. These years proved valuable as she learnt a number of techniques useful in HIV research.
“The work I did at Oxford contributed to four publications which I am extremely proud of,” she said.
Koofhethile’s education further advanced in 2010 when she was awarded a PhD scholarship from the Organisation for Women in Science from the Developing World (OWSD).
“The funding allowed me to start my PhD studies in July 2011 at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). I successfully finished my PhD in June 2015 and finally graduated a couple of months ago. I am currently a Post Doctoral Fellow at the HIV Pathogenesis Programme at UKZN, continuing my research on HIV natural controllers,” she said matter-of-factly.
Koofhethile admits to facing difficulties as a self-sponsored student but credits her family for the support they gave her. “I also took up part-time work to be able to pay bills. In the end it was worth it,” she said happily.
It certainly was worth it if Koofhethile’s accolades are anything to go by, as she highlights humbly, “I have recently published a paper as a first author at the Journal of Virology. This paper is my pride and joy and it entails the exciting findings of my PhD research work. I have attended many courses and conferences, in most cases having been awarded full scholarships. Furthermore, I have presented my work at International conferences in the form of posters or oral presentations.
“In the upcoming International AIDS conference in Durban, I have been awarded a registration scholarship and my abstract was selected for an oral presentation. And, more exciting news – I have been nominated to co-chair a session during the conference,” she said proudly.
Although she enjoys her work, Koofhethile does have other interests and volunteers as an Administration Manager for the Durban-based Clermont Choir Foundation and the ‘Voices of South Africa Foundation 2016’.
“I enjoy singing in the choir. I am a typical girl who loves shopping, especially for shoes, and I enjoy watching reality TV particularly the cooking channels and movies. I don’t always manage to go to the gym as often as I would like but I make a moderate effort,” she chuckled humorously.
With such a decorated past, what does the future hold for the intrepid lady of Science?
“My heart is set on eventually making my way back home. I am working towards establishing research collaborations with my former employers at the Botswana Harvard partnership. As I continue to gain more experience on HIV research work, I also mentor some of the students at BHP, either with their work or assist and advise on scholarship opportunities. My wish is to encourage young girls to take on Science as a career option. I want to see my country develop and have a good number of women in Science,” she finished impressively – and Koofhethile normally gets what she wants!