Dual degree was ‘a juggling act’

13 February 2019 | Story Niémah Davids. Photo Supplied. Read time 7 min.
Kira Düsterwald celebrates after graduating with her intercalated degree in medicine and science at UCT last year.
Kira Düsterwald celebrates after graduating with her intercalated degree in medicine and science at UCT last year.

For 25-year-old Kira Düsterwald, when it dawned on her in matric that unlike science, medicine was very interdisciplinary, the latter became her career choice. The fact that medicine relies on social, scientific and psychological domains to solve a host of the world’s most pressing challenges intrigued her.

So despite her love for mathematics – she represented South Africa in the International Mathematical Olympiad in high school – medicine won out.

Little did she know then, however, that she would soon be able to combine the two.

Düsterwald embarked on her journey to study medicine at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Faculty of Health Sciences. There, she got a lot more than she bargained for.

Fast-forward just seven years after registering as a fresher med student, and Düsterwald and fellow UCT graduate Nicola Steinhaus have both achieved something extraordinary.

In 2018 the pair graduated with their intercalated MBChB degrees in medicine with first-class honours, as well as a masterʼs in neuroscience for Düsterwald, and masterʼs in public health for Steinhaus, both with distinction.

Düsterwald and Steinhaus were both part of UCT’s Clinical Scholars Programme, established in 2011 by the late former dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences Professor Bongani Mayosi, and the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine’s Professor Arieh Katz. The programme seeks to train and inspire a new generation of clinical researchers, boosting South Africa’s overall pool.

 “In many ways the Clinical Scholars Programme was a relief for me. In my first year I already knew I wanted to be part of the cohort. In my mind it gave me the opportunity to do a bit of medicine, which I loved, while also exploring the field of science and keeping my mathematics interests going,” Düsterwald said.


“In many ways the Clinical Scholars Programme was a relief for me. In my first year I already knew I wanted to be part of the cohort.”

Academic journey with a difference

To this end, she enrolled in additional mathematics and statistics credit classes in her first year. By 2015 she had completed the equivalent of a pure mathematics undergraduate major, while continuing with her medical degree. She then turned her attention to medical research, incorporating mathematics as often as possible.

In her fourth year she took time out from pursuing her medical degree to complete her honours in neuroscience. During that time she explored the field of computational neuroscience, which finally enabled her to combine mathematics and medicine.

“All credit goes to my supervisor Dr Joseph Raimondo for his ability to impart the excitement of the field and the lab environment, and not forgetting his attentive supervision. I was hooked and encouraged to pursue my MSc,” she said.

Following her honours, Düsterwald returned to her clinical studies, but continued her research in her free time. With Raimondo’s encouragement to chase her MSc in 2016, she persevered. That same year she was awarded a Mandela Rhodes Foundation Scholarship, which allowed her to complete her masterʼs degree. It also exposed her to the leadership development she says she needed to shape her future career plans.

In April 2017 the possibility of graduating with both her MBChB and her MSc was fast becoming a reality, and she completed enough material to “push through” and submit her masterʼs.

“The two degrees had been so intricately linked; I often had to sacrifice time on one for the other. Although the two worlds can feel far apart, one of the ways I could show that I was a clinician and a scientist was by being awarded both degrees with their respective highest honours at the same time,” she said.

A juggling act

The blessing, or the curse, of juggling a science and a medical degree and feeling like an “imposter” in both streams was one of Düsterwald’s biggest challenges. But, she said, eventually it all came together – those feelings didn’t last forever.

Proper time management and “working smart” to fit in the stringent requirements that came with both degrees was challenging too.

“There were multiple times when I had to move courses or exams and convince the convenors that I could handle the extra load. I always used my prior success as proof that I would be able to cope,” she said.

Medicine was always her main focus and skipping clinical duties or activities was never an option. She also maintained an active role in the Studentsʼ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO) student-run clinics regardless of her dual-degree demands. Even though it sometimes felt like she wasn’t representing both fields of study sufficiently, she didn't let that stop her.

“All it takes is diligence, open-mindedness and hard work, and slowly it all comes together,” she said.


“All it takes is diligence, open-mindedness and hard work, and slowly it all comes together.”

Thumbs-up for Clinical Scholars Programme

Düsterwald credits the programme for playing an integral role in her personal and professional development, and described working and learning from academics such as Mayosi and a host of others as a “definite highlight”.

She believes its value is two-fold. It’s become incredibly important for students to gain experience in the mechanics of research, she said, and at the same time to understand basic molecular work. On the other hand, the additional course offered in the students’ third year, and presented in smaller classes, gives them an opportunity to learn from fields closely allied to clinical medicine. The programme addresses both needs.

To practice and solidify the skills she was taught in medical school, she is completing her medical internship at the Livingstone, Dora Nginza and Provincial hospitals in Port Elizabeth. There she works as a medical doctor and is responsible for consulting with patients and carrying out procedures.

“Working as a doctor in a new province is starkly different from being a student. As a student, every decision you make needs to be vetted by a senior qualified doctor. But being a new doctor, I have to do things on my own. I really enjoy making good, independent clinical decisions,” she said.

Düsterwald has a few other career plans up her sleeve, including a long-term goal of becoming a clinician-scientist, with one foot in the lab and the other in the clinic.

But for now she is focused on completing her internship and community service. Thereafter, a PhD might be on the cards.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.

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.

Prestigious scholarship for star pupil Prospective UCT student Terrell Demorgan has been awarded the inaugural Daniel Samuel Maseko Memorial Scholarship for 2020. 31 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
UCT adds Khoekhoegowab to its language courses UCT announced during its Africa Month celebrations the addition of Khoekhoegowab, the indigenous Khoisan language, to its multilingual short courses. 30 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
UCT in top 1.3% globally UCT ranks best in Africa, according to the latest Center for World University Rankings. 30 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
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
Cape Town’s drought under the microscope PhD candidate Precious Mahlalela dedicated her masterʼs thesis to understanding the cause of the Mother City’s recent drought and received recognition in a top international journal. 27 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
SA’s first ‘LinkedIn for creatives’ Three UCT Commerce students have designed an online platform that gives creative professionals a way to network and share their work with a vast audience. 27 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Common contraceptive could raise TB risk A breakthrough study at UCT has revealed that one of the country’s most commonly used injectable contraceptives could potentially increase users’ risk of contracting tuberculosis. 26 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
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
Solving SA’s literacy crisis An education expert told UCT Summer School participants that thereʼs no quick fix for South Africaʼs literacy crisis. It will take time and hard work. 17 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019
Racism and ‘xenophobia’: 10 key points UCT News highlighted 10 key points from UCT PhD candidate Ivan Katsere’s op-ed on the centrality of racism in violence against African migrants. 17 Dec 2019 Highlight from 2019