Balance key to two-in-one degree

13 February 2019 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photos Supplied. Read time 8 min.
VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng caps Nicola Steinhaus at the December 2018 graduation.
VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng caps Nicola Steinhaus at the December 2018 graduation.

With determination, a strong support network and a conscious balancing of academics and play, 26-year-old Nicola Steinhaus graduated from the University of Cape Town (UCT) with both an MBChB and a master’s in public health.

In December 2018, Steinhaus was one of two graduates who received their intercalated degrees. She obtained her MBChB with distinction in the basic sciences and clinical sciences, and the degree with first-class honours. She also obtained her master’s with distinction.

Her incredible feat follows that of Matthew Amoni and Richard Burman in 2017. Last year Kira Düsterwald also graduated in December with an MBChB (first-class honours) and an MSc in neuroscience.

All four were part of UCT’s Clinical Scholars Programme which began in 2011. The programme was spearheaded by the late Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Bongani Mayosi, who Steinhaus refers to as having been an “incredibly supportive” and “wonderful, kind” person.

According to the Department of Medicine’s website, the purpose of the programme “is to train and inspire a new generation of clinical researchers to replace the ageing pool of largely white male and white academics in health science faculties, and to increase the pool of clinical researchers in general”.

“I think the programme is great and will create doctors that forge a connection between clinical practice on the ground and research in the labs,” said Steinhaus.

The programme is “targeted at the most able, talented and motivated students with the potential to become leaders in their field”. Steinhaus has proved to be one of them.


“I feel incredibly privileged to be in a profession where we really can change lives, and that drives me to be better and try harder every day.”

Toward public health

Initially, medicine was a natural next step for Steinhaus rather than her life-long passion.

She excelled at Rustenburg Girls’ High School, finishing matric as dux scholar. Having enjoyed biology and with parents who are both in the medical field, it seemed an obvious choice to study medicine.

“I can’t say I came into medicine wanting to save the world – I definitely wasn’t that altruistic at 18 years old!” she said.

But she has since grown to love her chosen profession, particularly its human aspect.

“I feel incredibly privileged to be in a profession where we really can change lives, and that drives me to be better and try harder every day,” she said.

By her third year, Steinhaus’s public health journey had begun to pick up. It was in this field, with its challenges and opportunities, that she found her “perfect path”.

While working on a project that combined medical biochemistry/infectious diseases and immunology, Steinhaus was exposed to basic research principles, study design, biostatistics and public health. While the first two were “incredibly useful”, it was the last two that led to her master’s.

She also found great value in doing the master’s degree with the MBChB.

“I feel they complemented each other and worked synergistically to give me better insight into healthcare in our country,” she said.

Early on in her medical training, Steinhaus became frustrated with South Africa’s healthcare system.

“I felt it was always very curative rather than preventative. We were always running around trying to treat diseases in their end-stages, rather than investing in measures to lessen the occurrence of disease in the first place.”

She has since committed herself to understanding more about healthcare systems and implementing necessary changes on a population level. She is especially interested in infectious diseases.


“We were always running around trying to treat diseases in their end-stages, rather than investing in measures to lessen the occurrence of disease in the first place.”

“They form an extremely large burden of disease in our country, and are largely preventable.”

Finding the balance

Pursuing one degree is tough enough on its own; pursuing two can seem impossible. But for Steinhaus, doing many things at once is part of who she is.

Along with her “two-in-one” degree, she was a tutor in medical biochemistry and for mathematics with Brightsparkz. She served IkamvaYouth for two years and UCT’s Golden Future Project, and was with the Studentsʼ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO) health division from 2012 to 2014.

As if that isn’t enough, she made time to join the UCT Running Club and has finished seven Two Oceans Half Marathons since starting at UCT in 2012.

“My parents have always thought I’m a bit crazy for trying to do so many things at once,” Steinhaus conceded.

Nicola Steinhaus graduated from UCT with a MBChB and a master’s in public health.

“But they have always been very supportive, which has helped me maximise the opportunities which I have been fortunate enough to have been given.”

She names her high-achieving family, network of loved ones, clinical partner Emily Chetwin and her master’s supervisors Sean Wasserman and Mary-Ann Davies as significant contributors to her support network.

She said they played an enormous role in her success, and she encouraged other students to draw on their own networks – whether it’s friends, family, colleagues or pets.

“They will pick you up and keep you going when you are feeling completely overwhelmed and lost.”

Asked what other advice she has for those struggling with their workload or wanting to follow a similar path, Steinhaus said it’s about joy, time management and balance.

“It’s only really worth [it] if you are really enjoying it. I’ve always been a follower of the idea ‘if it doesn’t add joy to your life, chuck it out’.”

She calls time-management skills “essential”, and maximises her spare moments by catching up on emails and readings. But balance is key.

“I always made sure to keep doing activities that made me happy and kept me sane though. I promised myself that if I ever stopped doing those things because of work, it had gone too far.”


“I promised myself that if I ever stopped doing those things because of work, it had gone too far.”

The journey ahead

Working to maintain the balance between the work and hobbies she loves is part of Steinhaus’s plan for the future. Since graduating, sheʼs taken some “me time” and has been enjoying the outdoors. She recently started her medical internship at Groote Schuur Hospital and is doing her paediatrics rotation.

“After that, I am aiming to do my community service year in a more rural setting and get a better understanding of our healthcare system outside of the relatively well-resourced Western Cape.”

As for her longer-term plans, Steinhaus said she hopes to merge her interests and to engage in “big-system changes while still interacting with patients on a one-on-one basis”.

“I do know I am definitely keen to go more into infectious disease prevention and control.”

With her various interests, hobbies and dreams, there’s a lot more juggling in her future. But instead of letting it overwhelm her, she’s thrilled about the journey ahead.

“Right now, I am just super excited about all of the possibilities and open doors,” said Steinhaus.

“And I’m just as clueless as anyone about which one I’ll choose to take.”

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Highlights from 2019


As we look back on 2019, we celebrate the top 40 stories that were most popular with readers of the UCT News website during the year.

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Touch down for SA’s banking Siri Four UCT students have developed a one-stop banking shop that performs banking transactions, monitors account activity and speaks four South African languages. 30 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Warm response to Moloi-Motsepe’s election as chancellor Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe has been elected as the University of Cape Town’s sixth chancellor. She will take up the position from 1 January 2020. 29 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
UCT tops in Africa in all five major rankings UCT took the top spot in South Africa and jumped back into the 201–300 band in the latest ShanghaiRankingʼs Academic Ranking of World Universities 2019. 28 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
UCT best in Africa in world rankings UCT has been ranked the best university on the continent in the 2020 US News Best Global Universities rankings. 27 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
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UCT graduates ‘highly sought after’ UCT Careers Service’s Graduate Exit Survey confirms that the university’s graduates remain “highly sought after”, with only about 10% of the 2018 class still seeking jobs. 25 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Levelling the maths, physics playing field Thabang Sebetoane’s brainchild, the tutoring project Tshehetso, uses coaching and mentoring to prepare potential engineering students for success at university. 24 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Dual degree was ‘a juggling act’ With diligence and perseverance, UCT student Kira Düsterwald simultaneously graduated with her degree in medicine and her masterʼs in neuroscience. 24 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Balance key to two-in-one degree Balance was key to UCT’s Nicola Steinhaus graduating with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree concurrently. 24 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
UCT master’s degrees pull international students A significant number of UCT’s 605 new international students in 2019 have signed up for master’s degree programmes, a trend that’s evident across all six academic faculties. 23 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
‘This is my mother’s graduation’ While it’s his name on the degree, Ntebogang Segone says his 17 April graduation belongs to his mother. 23 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
New ‘fully funded’ scholarship for top young researchers UCT's new Vice-Chancellor Research Scholarship will support and develop the university's top young researchers as they tackle society's most pressing challenges. 23 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Hon doc for maths ‘trailblazer’ Phakeng VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng says her honorary doctorate from the University of Bristol is “a recognition of the many people who made me, those I represent”. 22 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Student’s urine-recovery system for R600m building In a first for South Africa, a urine-recovery urinal system developed at UCT has been incorporated into the design of a R600-million Centurion office building. 21 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Tackling the fake qualifications threat Universities and employers in South Africa have a vital tool to tackle the fake qualifications menace, thanks to the country’s world-first online verification system MiE. 20 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Changing face of UCT infrastructure A new 500-bed residence, an education building and a redeveloped North Bus Stop are among seven new developments in the pipeline to meet UCT’s needs to 2035. 20 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Student’s 3D-printer plan to change education UCT student Denislav Marinov has big plans for democratising quality education in South Africa, one 3D printer at a time. 20 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Black women academics: ‘Stay in the system’ Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s plea to young black women academics ahead of Women’s Day is that they “stay in the system” to change the status quo in academia. 19 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
UCT back in top 10 for development studies UCT has moved up two places in the 2019 QS World University Rankings by Subject, to reclaim its position in the top 10. 19 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
‘Something is deeply wrong with our society’ During a memorial service for Uyinene Mrwetyana, UCT chancellor, Mrs Graça Machel, said South Africa faces a deeply rooted problem and needs help. 19 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Students share their top study tips With just over a week to go before exams start, UCT students share their tried and tested tips for study success. 18 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Leverage privilege to change education, Madonsela urges Apartheid has cast a huge shadow over the country, particularly education, and it will need all of society to break the cycle of poverty. 18 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
UCT says ‘Enough is enough’ at Parliament picket UCT students and staff were joined by members of the public in a picket at Parliament to protest escalating sexual and gender-based violence. 18 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Matric maths pass rate poses significant challenge for universities Universities may have to swop targeted interventions for systemic change if they are to successfully graduate the strongest students currently exiting the South African school system. 17 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
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