In celebration of Women’s Month, Stellenbosch University is shining a spotlight on the exceptional women of our institution. As we celebrate the remarkable achievements of some of our female academics with this series of profiles, we also illuminate the transformative power of mentorship. Through their own experiences with mentors, these distinguished staff have not only excelled in their fields but also embraced the vital role of mentoring, guiding and inspiring younger colleagues and students towards success, fostering a more inclusive and empowered academic community.
It’s been a long and arduous journey for Dr Carine Kunsevi-Kilola to achieve her academic goals, but the extraordinary medical researcher never doubted she would one day hold a PhD. Growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kunsevi-Kilola dreamt of being a doctor from a young age. When the mother of two young boys now visits her family in the DRC, her father, Honore Kunsevi, never lets an opportunity pass to call his daughter “my doctor”.
As a post-doctoral research fellow at the Reproductive Immunology Research Consortium in Africa (RIRCA), based at the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics at Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Tygerberg campus, Kunsevi-Kilola has already made a notable impact in her field.
She was recently selected as one of ten outstanding early-career scientists from nine African countries for a four-year fellowship that will build the researchers’ capacity to conduct cutting-edge research in global health. The fellowships are awarded through the African Postdoctoral Training Initiative programme implemented by the African Academy of Sciences in partnership with the United States National Institute of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In 2019 Kunsevi-Kilola received the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for the Women in Science Programme for Young Talents in Sub-Saharan Africa. On top of all her academic achievements, the vibrant scientist is also a talented singer and dancer, an athlete who excelled at basketball and volleyball at school, and a budding entrepreneur who designs and sells notebooks, journals and planners on Amazon. If she could find extra hours in her busy schedule, she wants to design colouring books for children and the elderly.
After completing a diploma in science in the DRC in 2006 and doing research on water quality, Kunsevi-Kilola moved to South Africa. She obtained a BTech degree from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in 2008 and worked on a project to evaluate the quality of drinking water in Kayamandi. “I was offered an opportunity to pursue a master’s degree, but there was no funding at the time. So, I decided to find work and in 2010, I joined the division of molecular biology at SU as a technical officer in a research laboratory doing clinical trials on tuberculosis (TB) treatments.”
In 2014 she obtained a master’s degree under the supervision of Dr Johan Mars and was finally able to register for a PhD at SU focusing on a large study about the impact of diabetes on TB with Katharina Ronacher as supervisor and Leanie Kleynhans as co-supervisor. The research resonated with Kunsevi-Kilola on a personal level – as a child one of her siblings contracted TB and it had a big impact on the family.
“Completing my PhD was not easy; it was a very stressful time as I was pregnant with my second son. It made me realise what a high priority maternal health is. When I joined the RIRCA group under the supervision of Prof Clive Gray, I was fascinated to see that research was being done related to maternal and infant health by examining the function of the placenta. I felt the need to be part of this project to contribute and impact society.” Kunsevi-Kilola says she was even more motivated to succeed when she realised SU is one of Africa’s top universities and doing world-class research. “I gave it my all to graduate from this prestigious institution.”
The research Kunsevi-Kilola is doing on maternal and child health has important implications as one of the global sustainable development goals. Maternal health research is crucial for preventing and managing complications during pregnancy and childbirth in the context of infectious diseases such TB and HIV as well as adverse birth outcomes due to maternal health issues such as hypertension, diabetes and anaemia, she explains. “Our research on the impact of maternal health during pregnancy on birth outcomes can contribute to understanding the link between maternal health and subsequent implications for the newborns and child development. This can help us develop interventions to improve maternal screening, treatment and counselling during pregnancy to optimise the growth and development of newborns.”
Kunsevi-Kilola says she’s deeply grateful for the mentorship she received during her studies and while working at SU. Many colleagues have become role models to her, especially women who excel in science while taking care of families and contributing to their communities. As a student her supervisors were the first mentors who provided guidance, support, inspiration and opportunities to grow and excel as an academic. “They helped me overcome challenges, offered advice and encouragement and connected me with networks and communities that fast-tracked my career development. The recognition I’ve received is because they exposed me to so many different options.”
The multi-talented researcher is paying it forward by also mentoring young students and providing them with support and encouragement. One of her long-term goals is to train the next generation of researchers who’ll continue to improve maternal and child health with new skills and insights.
She credits her mother Francoise and her husband Didi for providing a well-oiled support system at home, especially when she was struggling to complete her PhD while pregnant. “I always say to myself, I don’t know how I did it but by God’s grace, I did it! During the final stage of my PhD, I used to work overtime from Fridays to late into Saturday nights. It was a great relief to know my son is being cared for by my mom while I could just focus on completing my dissertation. My dad and my husband also constantly motivated and encouraged me.”
She treasures a memory of writing the dedication page of her PhD thesis. When she completed the first draft, she dedicated it to her son Lael. Later, she fell pregnant and changed the dedication to “To my son Lael and my unborn son”. The process of completing her PhD was so drawn out, that by the time she handed in the final version she had already given birth a second time, so she altered the dedication one last time. “It was such an emotional moment for me. I will never forget writing ‘To my sons Lael and Liam’.”
Asked what advice she would give young female academics, Kunsevi-Kilola first mentions determination. “Be clear about your priorities and boundaries. Identify what is most important and meaningful to you in your work and personal life and allocate your time and energy accordingly. Plan and organise your schedule, seek and accept help. You need to find mentors and role models who can inspire, support, advise and challenge you in your career journey. Seek guidance from experts, peers and colleagues who can provide you with feedback, resources, opportunities and connections in global research. Stay focused, be determined to pursue your goal no matter what. But most importantly, take care of yourself. Your health and well-being are essential for your work and personal life.”