Young Scholar of the Month (March 2022)

Welcome to March!

Our scholar for the month is Kimberleigh Tommy from South Africa. Each month we spotlight young scholars who are doing tremendously well in their different research fields. Kimberleigh has gained remarkable academic excellence and has gone through many academic quests.

Here are some of her academic achievements:

* Awarded a master’s degree with distinction and no corrections (2018),

* Named a Mail and Guardian 200 Young South African in the Science and Technology (2020),

* Inspiring Fifty Women in STEM (2020), 

* L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science South African National Young Talents Program awardee (2020),

*  Science Today Top 20 Postgraduate Writers (2017),

 * a co-author on two book chapters, first-author on 2 publications in 2021 (one related to research and the other on strategizing public-facing work in anthropology),

 * Curator at the Maropeng and Sterkfontein Official Visitor Centre’s in the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site (2021), and

* an accomplished science communicator. 

Kimberleigh is a PhD candidate in Biological Anthropology with the Human Variation and Identification Research Unit (HVIRU, School of Anatomical Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Her research interest concentrates on Human evolution, functional morphology, and heritage.

                                                 Kimberleigh during a fieldwork

Hello Kimberleigh, can you share with us what you are currently working on?

Currently, I am looking at how walking on two legs affects the internal bony structure of the knee joint and why this joint is so prone to injury and diseases like osteoarthritis. To better understand the knee joint in living humans, I am exploring a broad data set that includes fossil hominins and other non-human primates to see how this joint has changed over time and its implications on joint stability and structural integrity. 

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 How will your research affect the African community?

The prevalence of Osteoarthritis has increased exponentially globally and affects millions of people. However, it is poorly understood and under-researched in African populations. By examining this condition within African populations, I hope to contribute toward a better understanding of the disease aetiology and public health discourse. The fossils examined in my PhD are from South Africa, one of the richest sites for palaeoanthropology in the world but with little representation of African researchers and narratives. Our stories have been told by others for too long and, I hope to play a part in creating safe and healthy spaces for Africans who are interested in these heritage and anthropological fields to pursue careers and challenge and change existing narratives while forging their path. 

What are the challenges you face as a young African researcher?

My field of study (palaeoanthropology/biological anthropology) is historically very white male-dominated. This has been a challenge because the existing structures have been developed with a particular group of privileged individuals in mind. And navigating the space is difficult which is why developing support structures is extremely important. Most work done on the African continent is helicopter research where foreign researchers from western nations come into Africa and extract with little to no local involvement or development, even though we have capable, excellent African researchers and an abundance of indigenous knowledge within our communities.

There is also always the constant challenge of being a woman. Particularly, being a woman of colour in academic spaces and dealing with not only sexism but racism as well. You are often undermined and dismissed simply because of the way you look or speak. I am grateful to have developed a strong support system and found many mentors who have helped me navigate this space. 

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 Aside from research, what are your other interests?

I love science communication. I write for the EONS PBS YouTube channel and focus on sharing fun stories from the African fossil record because it truly is vast and awe-inspiring.

During the lockdown, I took up yoga and have been hooked ever since. I used to be one of those people who worked non-stop and then I realized that my mental health and well-being are important and I have to prioritize myself. I think it’s important to have interests outside of science and your research work because you shouldn’t be defined by what you do and attach too much of your value to what you do or don’t achieve—that can be soul-crushing.

Do you have a quote/Word of Advice you could give to emerging early-career researchers?

I do have a word of advice for early researchers: You are worthy and capable. Whatever space you choose to occupy is a space you earned and deserved. Never let anyone make you feel otherwise.  

Kimberleigh is open to collaborations.

Connect with her on Twitter: @KimTommy92  | LinkedIn: Kimberleigh Tommy

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