Ruth Tiyembe is a Biochemistry student at the University of Botswana. She is passionate about the “out of the box” thinking that the sciences have to offer, and the breadth of career choices possible. She shares her take on sciences.
How did you come to love science?
Coincidentally, I always wanted to do law while in high school. I had the notion that in order to study law, I would only need to be good at languages. When I told this to one of my teachers in junior high school, she told me “You have to be good at everything to get into law!” At the time, I was very poor at math! I immediately began practicing math and began to enjoy it! In senior high school, I did pure sciences. When I joined the university, I opted for science instead of law, which was a shock to my family! I feel that there is a lot of creativity allowed in science, both in class as well as in career choice. Law seemed restrictive at the time.
My choice of which science to take was based on the subjects I liked most in high school, biology and chemistry. Another major factor for me was the possibility of venturing into research such as cancer, pharmaceuticals and so on which I would like to get into one day. I feel like I belong in biochemistry now that I have started doing it.
Science is not one of the mainstream career options. What is your experience after choosing a career in science?
There is this mentality in Africa that you have to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer and that is it. There is no awareness of the other science-based careers or what they pertain. For example, it is believed that doctors are the ones who develop medicine for diseases such as cancer or ebola, and yet, this is done by biochemists. There is very little career education for the sciences! Even in the university, anyone doing science is automatically branded as a teacher because of ignorance. There is a gap in career orientation, which means students don’t know what to do, after choosing the course. So many people deviate into other courses because of the lack of knowledge on what the courses entail. In biochemistry, one can specialize in petroleum chemistry, pharmaceutical chemistry, clinical chemistry and so much more. These specialization are not widely known. Biochemists can work in food or chemical processing plants, health inspectors, handling and cleaning water, at the bureau of standards, quality control, biotechnology, research and so much more.
What challenges have you faced in studying Biochemistry so far?
Language has been my largest challenge. In Zambia, English is the official language unlike Botswana where both English and Setswana are the official languages. Setswana is the most used mode of communication in Botswana. I started learning Setswana in form two. I am reasonably fluent now because a friend forced me to speak Setswana. I have been in situations where the lecturer makes some explanations in Setswana and if you do not get it, then you are left out. This is the difficulty of studying in a foreign country.
What, in your opinion, is the plight of girls pursuing science in Africa?
In Zambia, especially in the villages, girls feel that they can only get married and have children and nothing else beyond that. They don’t go into science, because they don’t have anyone to look up to. Another thing that I noticed is that they have been made to believe that they are not intelligent, so they do not exert themselves in school. I try to encourage any of the girls I meet when I am in the village, just to get them to appreciate themselves and what value they have to offer.
Who is your role model?
Thuli Madonsela, the public protector of south Africa. She is bold, is not easily intimidated by the men around her, and holds her position with authority. I believe she is what every woman should strive to embody. I also value my father’s input into my life. He has been a great influence in my life. He is intelligent, works hard, never gives up and does everything with conviction. He is also evolutionary and I have learnt a lot from him.
What are your plans for the future?
I would want to venture into cancer research because my close relatives have died of various types of cancer. So, I will pursue my postgraduate studies in molecular genetics to tie in to my goal of getting into cancer research. Food is a huge factor in the study of cancer. I would like to focus on how food affects cancer, especially given that most of the food we eat is genetically modified. I believe the food industry needs to be more involved in finding the cure.
What is your favorite quote?
I have two. Einstein said “Do whatever you want” when he decided to go against the grain and to be creative. There is a 90 year old Malaysian lady who did a degree at 86 years of age. She said “When you are still young, you still have time. So do as many things as possible with the time you have.” Use the time that you have in your youth wisely. Don’t let people trample on your dreams. I feel motivated by this.
What is your greatest fear in life?
Dying without doing everything that I set out to accomplish. It is making me work harder. It is not how long you live that matters, it is what you do with your life that determines the measure of success in your life. What you do will define the person that you are. So I strive to do something meaningful with my life. I always challenge myself to speak to a new person every day so that I don’t limit myself to a small circle of friends.
What do you do when you are not studying to be a biochemist?
I love the performing arts. Dance, Poetry and music. I have published some of my poetry online and made a few presentations. I love to dance and listen to different genres of music, depending on what I feel. My hobbies are an outlet for the challenges that I face during my studies and all the emotions that I feel.