UCT part of PhD graduand’s destiny

20 December 2019 | Story Niémah Davids. Photo Carlo Wayne Daniels. Read time 7 min.
Olivia Matshabane says despite the challenges she faced while pursuing her doctoral degree, she’ll do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Olivia Matshabane says despite the challenges she faced while pursuing her doctoral degree, she’ll do it all over again in a heartbeat.

It was during O-Week in 2011 at the University of Cape Town (UCT) when Olivia Matshabane’s mom sat her down and told her that paying for her university tuition would break the bank.

She had been accepted to complete a Bachelor of Social Science in psychology in UCT’s Faculty of Humanities and was a week away from attending her first lecture. Olivia remembered being devastated at having to choose an alternative university to complete her undergraduate programme. But furthering her education was a priority.

Today she has no regrets. UCT had been part of her destiny and on Thursday, 12 December, the 27-year-old graduated with her PhD in medicine from the institution’s Faculty of Health Sciences.

“It’s been a long, rewarding journey. There have been many times when things were very tough, but the key is to press on no matter what,” Olivia said.

Pursuing her PhD

Olivia completed her undergraduate programme in psychology at the University of the Western Cape, and her honours and master’s degrees at Stellenbosch University. She enrolled as a doctoral candidate at UCT in 2016 under the supervision of Associate Professor Jantina de Vries and Dr Megan Campbell.

After a tumultuous three years she is grateful that she was finally able to don her red robe to receive her doctoral degree in the Sarah Baartman Hall.

“Despite the challenges, I would do it all over again, any day,” she said.

And it helps that the topic of her research project is close to her heart. Her thesis explored how a genetic explanation for schizophrenia and rheumatic heart disease influences the stigma experienced by South African Xhosa people affected by both diseases.


“Despite all the challenges, I would do it all over again, any day.”

Olivia had always wanted to contribute positively to genomics research in Africa, which seems to be gaining momentum on the continent; however, she said not nearly enough is being done.

“It’s of great concern to me that there’s little known about how genomic research can have psychological or social impacts on the lives of African people,” she said.

Further, there continues to be a “great need” for Africans to weigh in on conversations facilitated by the global north, but that directly affects the global south. This includes conversations on genomics research.

“The views of Africans have been minimally represented in academic conversations in this field. I hope my research will help African researchers to think critically about the realities of African people enrolled in genomics research and seriously consider how their environmental, social, economic and cultural backgrounds relate to the research we conduct.”

Obstacle course

Olivia described her final year as a PhD candidate as the “toughest one yet”. After submitting her thesis in September 2018, she was stunned when she received a “revise and resubmit” from one of her examiners.

“This very rarely happens I was later told,” she said.

The result caught her completely off guard, and the corrections to her dissertation took a full year to complete. This, she explained, was largely as a result of other conflicting priorities, which included single parenting her young son.

“When I received the initial result, I felt like I failed myself, my supervisors, my son and everyone who supported me on this journey,” she said.

“I took a mental knock, and overcoming that knock took a lot out of me physically and emotionally. But with the continued support of my friends and family, and especially my supervisors, I made it through.”

Lasting connections

Working towards her doctorate presented Olivia with a list of opportunities, which included attending multiple international conferences. There, she shared her research and collaborated with esteemed academics from around the world.


“I am excited at the prospect of drawing on the networks I’ve built with international scholars.”

She also participated in the PhD International Summer School in Social Science at the Oslo University in Norway in 2017. She believes that her trips abroad have opened many doors, and cross-collaborating with other researchers in the field has been a good learning experience, which she can draw from for a long time to come.

“As I continue my academic career, I am excited at the prospect of drawing on the networks I’ve built with international scholars, learning from them and have them learn from me,” she said.

What’s next

In 2019, Olivia started lecturing the Development Psychology module to second-year students at UCT, a role she’s thrilled about.

She is also a postdoctoral fellow in UCT’s Department of Medicine and leads a project that explores when, why, and how patients would prefer to receive incidental findings on individuals involved in genomics research. Her postdoctoral research is under the mentorship of Associate Professor Jantina de Vries and Professor Ambroise Wonkam.

She said increasingly incidental findings are identified in patients, but scientists have no clear understanding whether African participants in genomics research would like to receive feedback, and how patients would prefer to receive these results.

“The study I am involved in focuses on exploring this question with parents of children who have neurodevelopment disorders like autism, and adults who have psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar,” she said.

Her project forms part of the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) Initiative – a consortium focused specifically on conducting genomics research on common disease in Africa, through facilitating a modern-day research approach to studying genomics. The project is funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Wellcome Trust (WT).

“Looking back, I can honestly say that there have been mostly highs on this journey. Yes, there were sleepless nights and tears – many of them – but the highs most definitely outweigh the lows.”

“My biggest blessings have been my supervisors. They believed in me and saw my potential even before I could see it. I owe a large part of my success to them,” she said.

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December graduation 2019

The University of Cape Town will be celebrating the graduation of 1 960 of its students over six graduation ceremonies on 12, 13 and 23 December, which include the conferral of three honorary doctorates and the presentation of the UCT Book Award and the UCT Creative Works Award. This graduation season, we also bid a fond farewell to our chancellor, Mrs Graça Machel, who has been the titular head of the university for the past 20 years. Her compassionate and dedicated service to the university will be deeply missed.
Farewell Chancellor Graça Machel

Our stories: inspirational graduates

UCT part of PhD graduand’s destiny As Olivia Matshabane prepared to receive her PhD from UCT this month, she said the highs have outweighed the lows during her journey. 20 Dec 2019
Former Miss SA’s road to graduation Tamaryn Green will graduate with her MBChB from UCT on Monday, 23 December, and says she will forever remember the “challenging yet fulfilling” seven-year journey. 19 Dec 2019
Through dysphoria to a doctoral degree Velile Vilane’s journey to a PhD from the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment goes beyond the degree – it’s about coming into being. 12 Dec 2019
Balancing a baby and the books Rejoice Gorni, a student at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, returned to lectures just days after giving birth to complete her PGDip in management. 12 Dec 2019
‘Education was my only hope’ Monica Damane, who will graduate on Thursday, 12 December, with her MSc in engineering says the road to this achievement has been far from easy. 11 Dec 2019
‘I refused to be called a failure’ Having endured personal setbacks and defied the odds, Furaha Abwe will graduate with his PhD in Architecture and Planning on Thursday, 12 December. 11 Dec 2019
Swimming upstream – the second-chance graduand This week UCT celebrates its inspirational graduands, students such as staffer Nombuso Shabalala who reclaimed her life after a traumatic event had left her becalmed. 10 Dec 2019
Burn the boat to win the island Having worked her way through to her doctoral studies, Delta Ndou will soon don the sought-after red robe to receive her PhD in Media Studies at UCT. 10 Dec 2019
Dream big and apply yourself fully Musa Kika arrived at UCT to study for an LLM, but his master’s was upgraded and he will be graduating in December with a PhD. 09 Dec 2019
Graduation speakers