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Future Professors Programme: Dr Tongai Maponga
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing Division / Afdeling Korporatiewe Kommunikasie en Bemarking
Published: 29/07/2021

Dr Tongai Maponga, a researcher in the Division of Medical Virology, is among a selected group of Stellenbosch University (SU) staff members who are participating in the Future Professors Programme (FPP), an initiative of the Department of Higher Education and Training. The FPP aims to develop a transformed next generation of South African professors across all disciplines. Read more about his career journey. 

As a hepatitis researcher, Dr Tongai Maponga is in the business of searching for better diagnostic and treatment solutions to ensure early diagnosis of this inflammatory liver condition, thereby preventing complications such as liver cancer.

Dr Maponga is a junior researcher in the Stellenbosch University (SU) Division of Medical Virology, and the SU-based principal investigator for the multi-centre Africa-Oxford (AfOx) hepatitis B virus research project led by Prof Philippa Matthews of Oxford University. In the latter capacity, he coordinates the ethical aspects of the project, liaises with a network of clinicians to ensure participant recruitment, and oversees data management.

The five types of hepatitis – A, B, C, D and E – may cause acute to chronic inflammation of the liver, a vital organ for detoxifying the body minute by minute. In serious cases, hepatitis can lead to severe liver scarring (cirrhosis) and cancer. World Health Organisation officials are particularly concerned about hepatitis B and C, which could lead to chronic illness in millions of people if left unchecked.

Dr Maponga finds meaning in knowing that his research ultimately strengthens the work of others to develop better therapies, as well as diagnostic tools to prevent future outbreaks. “One day, I'd like to look back and know that I've improved the lives of patients, those people suffering from hepatitis," he says. “You could have produced hundreds of research papers, but if they do not meaningfully benefit any patient in terms of preventing the disease and bettering our level of care, then what do they really mean?"

Having recently been awarded an AfOx research development award, he will soon be expanding his hepatitis work to beyond the Western Cape. The award will fund research to understand the epidemiology of hepatitis B in a cohort of patients in KwaZulu-Natal. Through the Division of Medical Virology and the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA), he also helps track SARS-CoV-2 variants.

Busy year

Dr Maponga joined Medical Virology as a master's student in 2010 and was appointed as a junior lecturer and researcher in 2019.

In 2012, he was among the SU research team who described South Africa's first case of chronic hepatitis E virus in an HIV-infected patient. In 2016, he obtained his PhD with a dissertation on hepatitis B in immunosuppressed patients, with bursary assistance from the National Research Foundation (NRF), the Harry Crossley Foundation and the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation. He has also spent time conducting research at Oxford and Columbia universities.

It's been a busy year for this Health Professions Council-registered intern medical scientist. He expects to complete his internship training in October, is supervising postgraduate students, and has been selected as one of three SU academics who form part of this year's intake for the Department of Higher Education and Training's Future Professors Programme (Phase 01). The FPP is a preparatory two-year programme that supports young scholars at South African universities to lead through excellence in their respective fields, equipping them to be the country's next generation of professors. The programme teaches FPP fellows valuable lessons about academic scholarship, NRF funding and rating applications, as well as other aspects of the life of an academic.

To Dr Maponga, the regular group coaching sessions and psychosocial support of the FPP are particularly meaningful, as these help him maintain a better work–life balance and cope with work stresses. He is also grateful for the benchmarking exercise included in the FPP, which is helping him prepare to be rated by the NRF.

Overcoming obstacles

His tertiary career started as an enrolled student at the University of Zimbabwe, thanks to a comprehensive taxpayer-supported grant. However, the state of the Zimbabwean fiscus saw him and many other Zimbabweans lose this benefit in 2005, his third year of study. “It made my life quite difficult, but thanks to the support and sacrifice of my parents and siblings, I completed my four-year honours degree in Medical Laboratory Sciences," he says. His first job was at a clinical diagnostic laboratory in Harare, after which he moved to the African Institute of Biomedical Science and Technology in the same city.

He describes his subsequent two-year stint at the National Referral Laboratory in Mbabane, Eswatini, as “an extremely formative influence" on his journey to becoming a biomedical scientist and researcher. Here, he oversaw the establishment of the laboratory facilities required to perform HIV tests on infants in Eswatini instead of at state facilities in South Africa, as was the practice at the time. “It remains one of my proudest leadership achievements to date," he reflects on the experience, for which he worked closely with funding partners from UNICEF and the Clinton Health Foundation.

Despite his professional accomplishments, however, the father of two daughters and husband to wife Vimbai says being a family man trumps everything else. “Being a good father to five-year-old Tinodiwa and three-year-old Tinevimbo is more demanding than doing research," he lovingly jokes.