The SA women smashing science stereotype – Neuroscientists Rachael Dangarembizi and Ursula Rohlwink

The Neuroscience Institute in Cape Town linked to Groote Schuur Hospital that secured a place in history with the world’s first heart transplant is a forward thinking institute aimed at ensuring that science in Africa does not get left behind and is adapted to suit the continent. It is a field not known to be populated by women and in particular black women. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women as girls are less likely than boys to choose STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematic) subjects. Alec Hogg chatted to Dr Ursula Rohlwink and Dr Rachael Dangarembizi at the institute who are eager to push neuroscience forward and to increase understanding of the brain. Well, we all know that brain surgeons are put in the same category as rock scientists at the top of the intelligence tree and he found they were no ordinary scientists. – Linda van Tilburg

Rachael Dangarembizi grew up in Zimbabwe, lost her parents as a teenager and through sheer grit, hard work and luckily an abundance of intelligence managed to complete a PhD and has joined the institute as a researcher in physiology. At the same time, she was the main breadwinner for her four siblings. Dr Ursula Rohlwink was lured back to the University of Cape Town’s Neuroscience Institute because it offered her the perfect fit to study her specialised field, which is brain injuries in children. Dr Dangarembizi told Alec Hogg how she overcame poverty as the sole breadwinner of her family while she studied.  

I started my undergraduate studies in Zimbabwe. I trained as a biochemist, after that I got a scholarship to do a Master of Science and Medicine at Witwatersrand, South Africa. I graduated and continued to do a PhD with the Brain Function Research Group. I graduated with my PhD in 2018 and went back to Zimbabwe to work in the university as a neurophysiology lecturer. In 2019, I came to UCT, first as a post-doc in Jo Raimondo’s lab and now I am a member of staff.

Dr Joseph Raimondo works on an epilepsy model for neurosis to psychosis, one of the most debilitating neuro-infections that we have in Africa, which actually causes quite a lot of epilepsy and seizures. So, one of the central mechanisms that underlies that particular condition is neuro-inflammation and that’s how I came in because that’s my interest and that’s also my area of training in my PhD. So, I came in as a post-doctoral fellow in his lab and I was working with his students, PhD and masters on projects related to the neuro-inflammatory mechanisms. Neuro-inflammation is the reaction of brain cells in an inflammatory fashion to injury. So that injury can be as a result of infection or it can be as a result of trauma.

But yours is an extraordinary story. How did you get drawn into working with the brain? Do you have medicine in your family?

I actually had a very interesting upbringing, which is also part of the story of how I became a part of the Neuroscience Institute. I grew up in a very resource constrained environment in the African context and I also lost my parents when I was really young.

Both your parents? 

Both my parents, at the age of 16. We were quite a big family of five and I was the first born. So, I already had the task of having to take care of everybody else, and at the same time trying to also further my interests in education and science, and everything which was quite difficult as you can imagine. So, I went to do a degree


There was a lot at play. I didn’t have many relatives, but I was brilliant in school and had brilliant results. I benefited a lot from scholarships and I also had to work quite a lot of extra jobs after school in all sorts of things to try and raise money to take care of myself, as well as my little sisters and get them to go to school.

When I got to university at that time; the university had a bursary system for all Zimbabwean students, but unfortunately during my first year that bursary system was phased out because of economic hardships. I was faced with an uncertain future, but luckily there were companies that came forward and decided to identify the best students in disciplines they were interested in and because I was doing biochemistry; there were companies in industry that needed biochemists and they decided to fund me because I had a very good academic record; I qualified for that.

So, in terms of fees, that’s how I covered my tuition, upkeep and taking care of my sisters. I also had to look for jobs to do which ranged from working in the gas station, supermarkets, working for people doing domestic work etc. to try to raise money to take care of my siblings at the same time as taking care of myself.  I was very fortunate because I had a very good academic record at university.

I graduated with about nine or more awards including all the book prizes for all the years that I was there and the vice-chancellor’s prize for academic excellence. And so, because of that academic record; I graduated with a distinction. I then set out applying for scholarships outside Zimbabwe and I got the scholarship which was a merit based scholarship. That’s how I got into the master’s program. So, I got into the physiology department where the scholarship was being offered and then I started doing physiology, general physiology. I graduated within record time and because of that so many people picked an interest in wanting to work with me. And so, I kind of picked a project that was in brain function, out of fascination. I’ve always loved a challenge. I knew that neuroscience is not really the easiest of  areas of study and I just challenged myself to it. So, I joined the brain function research group and started doing my projects in neurophysiology.

And your sisters?

All my sisters are in university now, which is quite a great thing. I’ve encouraged them to pursue education and pursue their dreams and they’re doing quite well; two in final year and the third one is doing biotechnology in second year. Unfortunately, we lost the youngest who was actually a young brother.

Where does it all come from, this drive, this need to succeed; the ability to overcome the challenges which you have been thrown which is greater than most people will have in many lifetimes?

I think it’s more of where I started from. There were so many things that I wanted that I didn’t get. That gives me the drive to want to get a better life and give a better life to my children and my sisters. The communities where we grew up in were very poor communities which is one of the reasons why I’ve chosen neuro-infections, particularly, because they do affect quite a lot of people in poor communities because of poor sanitation, poverty and malnutrition and lack of access to health facilities. Those were realities that I faced in my own life. That is some of the things that give me the drive to want to work in the areas where I work as well as want to push further.

It was interesting listening to the vice chancellor last night who said something about, you are here because of a tweet?

Oh yes,  actually how I got to UCT is a very interesting story, but a very powerful story because the vice-chancellor has got a drive to hire people who come from poorer black communities because that is how we can conquer the challenges that we were born in. So, she put up a request in 2018 on Twitter around November and she said by the 1st of December everybody should post their short little story and a picture of themselves graduating and a story about their education. On the 1st of December of 2018; I woke up in the morning and I just posted something. I just posted a bit of my story: ‘Lost my parents at the age of 16 and I grew up in the township. I never actually thought I would become anything. And here I am. So, I put a picture of my PhD; I said, I’ve just graduated with a PhD in neuroscience; and said I am happy that I have managed to put my sisters through school and they’re all now in college.’ I didn’t think it was going to have the impact that it had because within an hour my phone was literally freezing because of how it went viral. It went viral very quickly and there was a very positive response from that tweet.

From that, the vice-chancellor contacted me within two hours or so. She actually looked for my number and she called me and said, “where are you?” I said, I’m in Zimbabwe. We started talking from then onwards. Then she said, well, you’re in neuroscience and we have this neuroscience institute we’re coming up with and I would like to put you in contact with the director of that and that is how I started to talk to Graham Fieggen (Director of the Neuroscience Institute). Luckily, I am interested in the area of study that is quite central to the themes of study here in the Neuroscience Institute. So, I found that I actually linked with almost everybody that is doing their research here.

And the future for you in Africa or you’re looking at perhaps challenges from a global sense, New York, London?

My future is in Africa. I feel that as African neuroscientists we have got a huge responsibility to get neuroscience in Africa or science in general from where it is to where we want it to be and packing our bags and going to Europe is good perhaps for ourselves but not necessarily for the rest of Africa. I believe in staying in Africa, having relevant collaborations with people outside, getting the necessary training but also training younger generations of scientists and neuroscientists here in Africa that can carry the flame forward as we go. So, I’m going to stay in Africa and I am going to focus on research that is mostly relevant to our African context because I believe everybody cares about the problems that directly affect them. And for Africa to think that one day the world is going to wake up and just say,  ‘Okay, let’s focus on Africa, right now is really not going to happen.’

Dr Ursula Rohlwink told Alec that neuroscience disease is a big problem in Africa and so far, there has been a disproportionate focus on infectious diseases. She is interested in finding out more about our brains that she calls, “the blackbox hidden from our view.”

So I started in medicine here and I loved the clinical component of medicine and the interaction with patients and the relevance of being at the coalface of disease. I really loved that. But then for a number of reasons; I decided to take a leave of absence and I had the opportunity to go and study at the Bosporus University in Istanbul.

I was in my third year of medicine when I took my leave of absence and I took one year off. And then while I was in Turkey; I was introduced to neuroscience and as a medical student, I loved the modules we did on the brain. But I felt because of the clinical burden of disease; one needs to focus on so many different aspects of health that there wasn’t the opportunity to really understand what it is to have a brain. I was fascinated with the idea that the brain studies itself.

Well if you think about it: if you study the liver or the lungs; it’s really that we’re using our mental faculties to understand those organs. But in this case; we’re trying to use the brain itself to understand it. So, I was really fascinated by that whole question and just the enormous world of fascinating function and when things go wrong. The impact that it has on a person in terms of their personality, their life, their quality of being. When I was in Istanbul, I was introduced to neuroscience and I loved it. They had a very strong neuroscience focus. And so, I decided to stay on and actually not return to Cape Town.

So, I did my undergraduate degree in neuroscience at the Bosporus University. But then when it came to postgraduate work; I wanted to find myself back in the clinical domain and it was very difficult. I looked in Australia, I looked in Europe, I looked in the US for a neuroscience based program that was clinically relevant, and I couldn’t find one. And then serendipity brought me together with one of the child psychiatrists here at the Red Cross and through her, Graham Fieggen found out about me while I was  still in Istanbul at the time I was about to finish.

And so, it worked out that I was put in touch with the group here in Cape Town. I read about the work that they did and decided to come home and do my masters here in the neurosurgery division with Anthony Figaji who is head of paediatric neurosurgery and has a tremendous research interest in brain injury. Within the first month; I was so in love with the work that they were doing that I asked if I could stay on and do a PhD. And it’s eleven years now that I’ve been here. When I came, the diploma in neuroscience had just been included in the UCT handbook.

So, I was really privileged. I received the first Masters and the first PHD in neuroscience at UCT and so over the last decade; I’ve really felt like part of the journey of the growth of neuroscience here which has really culminated now, in the that we have a home and we have an established space and an established vision for neuroscience in UCT that extends beyond UCT hopefully. And so, I felt enormously privileged to be a part of that journey and to continue to be a part of that journey hopefully going forward.

What does a neuroscientist do?

Well, different neuroscientists do different things. I work in brain injury in children specifically. So, those are children who’ve sustained an  injury due to trauma or due to infection. My particular area of interest is tuberculosis meningitis. That’s when tuberculosis disseminates to the brain and it’s the most fatal form of TB disease. And it’s so fatal, because it causes so much damage to the brain, but it’s largely been approached as an infectious disease rather than as a neurological disease. My interest and my drive is to try to understand what is happening to the brain itself when it’s infected.

Why are we seeing the injury to the brain and what can we do about that rather than just to focus on the pathogen or the immune response which has largely been the focus of TB and research to date? So that’s what I do; I look at what are the mechanisms of injury in the brain. How do the different dynamics in the brain interact? How do they change when the brain has been under attack by a pathogen when it’s trying to defend itself?  And because the brain is this black box that’s really hidden from our view. We need to find inventive ways of actually being able to get insight into that black box.

It’s an amazing organisation that has been put together in this neuroscience institute in Africa but the one thing that struck me was how many women are involved relative to men. It seems like it’s a female field when you have a look around the symposium and just see the students and even the faculty. Why would that be?

It’s very interesting that you say that. I hadn’t actually noticed how female dominant the group is actually, but I think we have an incredible leadership particularly under Graham Fieggen. I’m a woman in a neurosurgical department that’s definitely male dominated. But that’s never been something that I’ve thought of; there’s an incredibly supportive environment in which I work and the leadership really matters.

It’s not completely girl power. It just looks like that.

I think there’s a very nice spread and in some of the clinical areas like neurosurgery for example; it is still largely male dominated but not exclusively. You know there have been a lot of female neurosurgeons that have come through in the last 10 years and neuroscience disease is a big problem in Africa. But there’s been a disproportionate focus on infectious disease. Now we do have infections that affect the brain but HIV, TB and malaria; they are big problems, but they have the lion’s share of the attention of the research, of the funding.

This is an institute that will really kind of be able to take those major steps for Africans saying; let’s put the neuroscience issues at the forefront as well because this has a major impact on the capacity of the African population. You know, the brain is really the key organ that determines the degree to which you can function, work, live, have a good quality of life, the health of individuals, societies and  communities. As much as we say; we’re an African Institute; we want to do research that is of international standard; so that we can have people like Professor Tobias Bonhoeffer (Max Planck Institute) for example saying he’d love to come here and spend some time maybe doing sabbatical work and he comes from a great Institute in Europe. So that’s really exciting. We get to both be incredibly African but incredibly international as well.

How much do we know about the brain?

I think it’s one of those manifestations of that saying; the more you know the more you realise how little you know. It’s so complex and I think we know a lot but relative to what I think we will learn in the future; we probably know nowhere near enough yet. And it is increasingly demonstrating its magnificence.

A last point; at Google they allow the staff to have 20% of their time to do stuff that interests them. If you were allowed to do that; if you’re allowed to do research or interests that you’re really excited about; what would it be?

It would be memory. I think memory is just the most fascinating function of the brain. It’s who we are, it’s our present, it’s our past, it’s our future. I think for me it’s one of the brain functions that’s most integral to the human experience and it’s incredibly complex. You know memory is not just one thing. It’s got many different facets to it. The loss of memory has a massive impact; the way that one deals with that is very varied. I love memory; I think it’s amazing. I wish I could study it; if I had an opportunity to be able to explore something more philosophical; it would definitely be on memory and what it means to us as human beings.

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