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Meet first black woman to get a PhD in internal medicine at Wits

Dr Nolubabalo Unati Nqebelele joins a group of fewer than 10 physicians in her field.

Dr Nolubabalo Unati Nqebelele. Picture: Wits University.

JOHANNESBURG - Dr Nolubabalo Unati Nqebelele has become the first black woman from Wits University to earn a PhD in internal medicine.

The Umtata-born academic, who qualified as a doctor at the University of Cape Town in 2000 and began her medical career at the Umtata General Hospital in 2001, has been awarded a PhD in nephrology by the university, becoming a specialist in Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD).

She joins a group of fewer than 10 physicians in her field.

“There have been many women before me who could have achieved the same qualification. Women doctors face social pressures and professional prejudices on their path to becoming specialists," Nqebelele says.

She emphasises on the importance of mentorship and how having a mentor was crucial in her own journey.

“Even though it is not easy to be what you haven’t already seen, a mentor’s encouragement makes a big difference. Because women are traditionally encouraged to pursue non-science careers, when one person stands out, that inspires others. Even though the road is tough with barriers and hurdles, winning against many odds inspires others to dream; to have limitless ambition."

Ngqebelele is a host mentor for the International Society of Nephrology’s Fellowship programme and has mentored doctors from Uganda, Mozambique, and Nigeria.

She started out at Wits as registrar in the Department of Internal Medicine and leader of the Chronic Haemodialysis Unit at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital. Before turning to full-time PhD studies in 2014, she served at the hospital as a specialist physician and senior consultant nephrologist.

Nqebelele says if she were the health minister for just one hour, she would make drastic policy changes to ensure equity, equality and universal access to dialysis for all kidney patients throughout the country.

“Getting kidney dialysis in South African is often a matter of chance; like a lucky draw. The criteria for selecting which patients go for dialysis is interpreted in different ways. Being selected for dialysis depends on who is interpreting the criteria – today you can be lucky but tomorrow your luck could run out,” she says.

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