Dr Tovhowani Ramulongo – power behind lab work and microbes

Johannesburg, 01 Sep 2021
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Dr Tovhowani Ramulongo.
Dr Tovhowani Ramulongo.

Armed with the knowledge of how RNA viruses behave during infection, CSIR senior researcher Dr Tovhowani Ramulongo effectively began her career when she joined the institution in May 2020. And what a time to start! 

Dr Ramulongo immediately got to work with the diagnostic processing of COVID-19 samples, looking at ribonucleic acid (RNA) extraction and reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and analysing results, managing data and doing research on the virus evolution.

“Most of my time is spent in the lab, having conversations with microbes. But there are days where I must read articles, design experiments, do computer-based analysis and write reports,” she says.

Technology is very much a part of what Dr Ramulongo does and why she does it.

“I believe that things can be better – there is always a level of improvement and technology makes that possible. As a microbiologist, having an in-depth understanding of how a micro-organism functions and the impact they have on human health and biotechnology remain a fundamental aspect of the work I do,” she says.

The value that technology can add to processes is highlighted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Apart from the socio-economic chaos brought about by COVID-19, the global concern has also focused on the rate at which the virus strain changes.

Dr Ramulongo's current focus is to understand exactly that. “The global COVID-19 pandemic has raised the awareness about the danger posed by RNA viruses, specifically coronaviruses. We have seen how easily such viruses change. Just a minor change in the genomic information can have a drastic impact on the protective immunity that might have been conferred through infection or vaccination. I am specifically looking at how this happens during the course of infection in an individual and/or as the virus spreads between individuals.”

But she feels South Africa needs to be recognised for its ability to vaccinate and combat the virus.

“I will have to applaud the country’s effort in fighting the spread of the virus and impact of the pandemic in people’s lives. The uncertainty of how long we will have to battle with this pandemic due to the emergence of new variants – vaccination remains our best shot. It is heartbreaking to hear about individuals who are taking a stand against vaccination. The vaccine does not only save my life, but also lives of those I love."

Dr Ramulongo represents the high calibre of empowered executive female professionals that now lead organisations and specialist fields.

“I am at my most happy place when I am tackling scientific questions and experimenting in the laboratory, therefore that is my current focus. But while I am enjoying being hands-on experimentally, I also want to start laying a foundation for the future. I want to be internationally recognised as an expert in my field and be in a platform that allows me to transfer my knowledge and skills to the next generation of scientists, especially women.”

While she acknowledges the progress that has been made in recognising the contribution that women make daily to South Africa’s economy, Dr Ramulongo believes there is still more work to be done.

“Throughout my career journey, I have been surrounded by women who are experts in my field and very fortunate to receive support and motivation from them. But I think when it comes to positions that are more senior or in leadership, we are still falling behind when it comes to women. We still need to find ways to make sure that everyone who contributes to an innovative idea or technology is recognised.”

As to whether enough is being done to support female representation in STEM-focused careers, Dr Ramulongo says there is still a clear opportunity.

“I think there is a lot of effort that is being made to support women in STEM careers; we just need to encourage and validate young girls who aspire to be in STEM. The space is there, it just needs to be taken.”

Dr Ramulongo continues to follow stories of women from all walks of life who are doing incredible things to draw inspiration.

As a female researcher, she has learnt – and offers this advice to others – that “the people around you are watching. Staying focused is important, and obviously, always giving your best.” She also believes in being kind, eager to learn and knowing how to make your voice heard. Working together is essential: “You can never go far on your own; you need others to lift you up.”

Her motto in life is: “Always live in the moment and consider the outcome of today’s choices.”

Strong words from a strong lady!

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