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Single mother’s grit takes her from rural village to PhD in Molecular Biology
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson]
Published: 13/12/2023

​​Raised in the small village of Nemangwe in the Midlands Province of Zimbabwe, 40-year-old Dr Rachiel Gumbo was always destined for bigger things. She has literally and figuratively come a long way since she finished high school. Showing grit and determination, Gumbo scaled the heights of academic success when she obtained her doctorate in Molecular Biology on Tuesday 12 December 2023 at Stellenbosch University (SU)'s December graduation.

But on her way to a PhD, she had to overcome a few challenges.

The oldest of three siblings, Gumbo obtained a BSc Honours Degree in Biological Sciences from Midlands State University in Zimbabwe in 2005 but could not continue with her studies due to a lack of grants and bursaries. She ended up working as a laboratory assistant at Hwange Colliery Hospital Laboratory and teaching mathematics, physical science and biology to high school learners.

Although she had to take this detour, Gumbo says she is grateful for having had the opportunity to teach. “Teaching was an incredibly worthwhile experience as it boosted my confidence, taught me to be patient with pupils, creative and above all, it gave me a good sense of humour."

Changing fortunes

In 2007, the single mother of two boys moved to South Africa to further her studies, but funding was hard to come by as a non-citizen.

To make ends meet, Gumbo offered private after-school lessons to learners and also did part-time tutoring with Education Matters in Cape Town before taking a job as a secretary at Forest Creations (Pty) Ltd, a woodwork company in the City. Her fortunes changed, however, in 2018 when she responded to a posting by Prof Michele Miller from SU's Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics for a new student to join the Animal TB Research Group. Miller would later become her supervisor along with Dr Tanya Kerr from the same division. “When I joined the group in 2019, my dream of continuing my studies became a reality," says Gumbo.

After obtaining her BSc Honours in Molecular Biology from SU in 2019, Gumbo enrolled for a MSc in the same field. Such was the quality of her research, that the Master's was upgraded to a PhD. This is a remarkable and rare achievement in academia. While busy with her doctorate, Gumbo published seven articles in international academic journals and received a prestigious scholarship from the Germany Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). She says her biggest challenge as an older international student studying at a South African University was scholarship eligibility, which threatened to derail her studies.

PhD research

Gumbo's PhD focused on developing immunological tests for improving the detection of animal tuberculosis (TB) in lions, leopards and cheetahs in South Africa. Animal TB is a serious chronic infectious disease caused by infection with Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis) in cattle and other domesticated animals, as well as many wildlife species, with potential transmission to humans.

According to Gumbo, several cheetahs, lions and leopards have died because of animal TB. Since M. bovis can be introduced into uninfected populations, and species-specific immunological tests for diagnosis of animal TB are limited, she developed a diagnostic test that can distinguish between M. bovis-infected and uninfected lions, leopards and cheetahs using commercially available kits.

“The development and incorporation of species-specific diagnostic tests for routine screening of lions, leopards and cheetahs are essential for early detection of TB in wildlife to allow prompt responses from veterinarians, researchers, and managers to prevent the spread of infection and enhance disease control," says Gumbo.

“Research focussing on animal TB has a broad impact on human health, food security and the livelihoods of rural African communities who rely on ecotourism as their primary source of income.  A better understanding of animal TB will help to protect Africa's vulnerable wildlife species and unique biodiversity."


Looking back on her journey, Gumbo says she was driven by the desire to improve the quality of her life and that of her children. “When things got tough, I kept reminding myself that I am doing this for my kids."

As a person of faith, Gumbo believes in the power of divine intervention. “I relied mainly on my faith as I juggled raising my two boys and pursuing my studies. I believe that God himself placed my supervisors Prof Michele Miller and Dr Tanya Kerr on my path to support me professionally and personally and to help me reach the pinnacle of academic success."

Gumbo's supervisors speak glowingly about her.

“Rachiel was a model student and demonstrated the passion and commitment to become a scientist. Her positive attitude and warm personality have made her a 'favourite' in our division. We are incredibly proud of her accomplishments and look forward to having her join us as a post-doctoral fellow in 2024."

Having had to overcome a few obstacles along the way, Gumbo has a message for women who may experience similar difficulties. “Firstly, don't let your background define you, and do not allow anybody to tell you that you can't do it. Although tears may be shed along the way, there is always light at the end of the tunnel."

When she not doing research, Gumbo loves to bake and try out new food recipes. “My older son loves food, so I attempt to cook different meals that I have not tried before. But sometimes I do flop". In addition to baking and cooking, she enjoys playing chess and watching WWE wrestling with her sons. Gumbo also loves athletics and used to be a discus thrower.

  • Photo: Dr Rachiel Gumbo at the graduation. Photographer: Stefan Els