Female Genomics Specialist – Dr. Keabetswe Ncube

For anyone who enjoys a meal with goat meat, this is a time to learn from someone very passionate about livestock, especially goats. She is a genomics specialist, studying the growth of goats and their meat.

Hello Kea, it is wonderful to work with you again. I welcome you to Words That Count
Hi Winnie! I am happy to be here; thanks to you and Anne.

Who is Kea to our audience?
My name is Dr. Keabetswe Ncube. I was born and raised in Pella village, North West, South Africa, on a farm with a lot of interest in animals. My mother was (still is) more into crop farming and vegetables; she is very skilled in animals but prefers crops and vegetables. I only enjoy eating these.

My late father on the other hand was more hands-on with the animals. I went to the farm more with my father as my sisters developed other interests along the way. This was a time for me to learn; I became more curious and asked a lot of questions about what was missing in the Agricultural system.

That’s how my love for animal science and agriculture was birthed. All questions I had about my father’s farm and his colleagues, combined with my inquisition, are what laid the foundation for what I currently do.

I understand where your passion comes from. But, what is it that you do in summary?
Currently, I work as a Genomics Specialist for a private company here in South Africa. My main responsibilities are Livestock Genomics although I also help out with other departments sometimes. For example, once in a while, I take on Human Genomics projects, especially HIV and diagnostics. In Livestock and wildlife genetics, I work with DNA profiling and parentage, as well as genetic mutation tests, I also do genetic health & colour tests in canine and feline species.

I also have a company of my own called Kea Ncube Agri Services which offers scientific farming solutions to farmers. So, I provide services about genetic tests, statistical methods that can be used for maximum yield, consultation, and farmer training; either one-on-one or organised group sessions. In summary, I am an agricultural consultant.

Through my Ph.D. journey, I learned a lot about meat science and quality, which led me to open a meat division in my business where I provide well-studied high-quality meat to my clients. Before adding a product to my sales, I acquire samples from various farmers then study the meat myself before selling it.

Walk us through your journey into becoming a genomics specialist
I started my Ph.D. journey with a more specific concentration on gene expression profiling. I wanted to specifically identify genes that are responsible for faster growth in village goats that don’t exist in commercial breeds. Along the line, I also identified a gap in the goat meat genetics industry and, therefore, added a chapter focusing on carcass quality and candidate genes for meat.

So that you understand how I developed my interest in meat science, the goat meat chapter was important to me. It was to sensitize people about goat meat and stop all myths there are about it. Besides, I realized that goat meat is not well-studied, so that pushed me more into research about goats and their meat. I wanted to leave genomics markers for anyone who might want to go into goat breeding in the future.

I am one person who believes in doing applicable research. So during that same time, I joined a program called the African Goat Improvement Network (AGIN); an initiative of USDA Feed the future, where we formed a community-based breeding program to implement our research into real farms. It was such a pleasure to work in a community where I grew up; for me, it was something personal – I was giving back to my community, a community that raised me. We also taught them how to implement good management systems for improved yields. This is something I still do with my clients to date.

I will add that I left academia because to me it is like a home. Home is where you are born, nurtured, and grow from. But you reach a point where you outgrow home and that was the case for me. I felt like I would be able to spread my wings wider in the industry than in academia. It doesn’t mean that people in academia can’t be “brands”, no! I know many people in South Africa who are big brands in academia. All I am saying is that academia is not for everyone and I am one of those whose brand just did not fit into academia.

Transitioning from academia to industry, what were some of the challenges you faced?
My biggest challenge was impostor syndrome! When you are in academia, you are either a master’s or Ph.D. candidate and it feels like that’s all you can do. Throughout the season, you can maybe progress to a post-doc, teaching, or research but that’s it. I am not trying to blow my own horn but I am always outstanding everywhere I go.

My destiny is something I have always been very certain of.  So having to stay in an environment where I hit the peak was frustrating to me. I had used my academic journey to discover who I am, where I fit, and where I want to go. Despite knowing what I wanted to achieve, the applicability and reality of that scared me so much! I didn’t think I was up to the standard, given my background in academia.

Another challenge was an identity crisis. Before discovering myself, I was so lost! This relates to my previous challenge but that’s after overcoming this; this was also a big challenge during my Ph.D. journey. I mean, you can’t find a solution to a problem you don’t know exists.

I knew the academic box was too small for me but I didn’t know what to do to make the most out of this big life I was living and wanted to live. The Ph.D. journey was lonely and tough because it brought out the best and the worst in me and I didn’t know when which side was showing or how to deal with all those overwhelming emotions.

Also, given the fact that I work with breeders, I constantly face the challenge of a typical black African woman! How can I be advising them about something they have been doing for generations? I am a young, female, black woman. That statement is challenging on all levels, haha.

Now, for me, my biggest challenges are fear and anxiety. At many points in my life, I have taken decisions without knowing exactly what the end goal would be, and that’s risky and scary. I started thinking about starting my own company; yes, it was a good idea but I was scared of how that was going to work out with no business experience whatsoever.

I was mainly scared of becoming poor, haha. Every step of this transition was full of fear and anxiety! This right here is what made my transition very difficult. Imagine starting a company and 2 months down the road there is a worldwide lock-down due to a pandemic! I was VERY scared, I won’t lie.

All challenges aside, I took that first step and my company has been a success. Giving up is not an option.

Let’s talk about your prestigious moments while on this journey
Achievements mhhhh! Okay, I will list those; Ph.D., Starting my business, InspiringFifty SA 2021 winner, Next Einstein Forum Ambassador SA 2017-2019, JCI’s 2017 Top Outstanding Young Person in academic achievements, Black Women in Science Fellow 2019, Invited speaker at several national and international conferences and events, and Scientific publications 😊

Who is Kea outside work?
I enjoy horse riding, reading, step aerobics, and teaching at Kid’s church.

What is your favourite quote?
My favorite quotes are “Why limit yourself with the sky when there are stars and galaxies!”, and “In a world full of princesses, be a scientist”.

How would you encourage young women or girls in STEM, who might want to follow your path?
I would say they need to discover who they are first and what they want to do before taking the step. This self-discovery journey is very tricky because it brings out traits you have never imagined having. If they are bad, work on them to become a better person. If they are good, build them more.

I would also encourage them to not fit in a box. Your Ph.D. or master’s qualification doesn’t define who you are. They are part of your beautiful life story. If you truly feel like there’s more inside of you, get out there and explore it. Spread your wings and fly higher. Stop being sorry for not fitting in a certain box! We come from a society that encourages us to be apologetic for our life achievements and decisions we take so we end up minimizing ourselves. That has to stop. “Oh I am sorry for being a Doctor and founding a company”, no I am not! I worked so hard for this thing, Haha!

They should also trust God. I am not disregarding any religion or belief but I am a Christian and that’s what I talk about. I believe if God wasn’t part of my journey, I wouldn’t have made it this far. Even at this point, I am still doing that. I want to grow my business; I want to expand and venture into new things that align with my vision. God’s power and grace towards my life have changed a lot of things in my favour.

Industry is not for the faint-hearted, haha. In academia, if you are not a self-motivated person, you aren’t going to make it! Yes, there are supervisors but you need to push yourself! You are being trained to be a researcher on your own and learn how to self-educate and trust your skills. It’s a dangerous field for people who are not passionate.

Yes, there might be challenges that bring in delays but also, there are also seasons of laziness. As I said, this is a place for giving birth and nurturing your baby, it’s home! You don’t want to give birth to your baby in a very aggressive environment. To me, that’s what academia is like.

On the other hand, industry is all about deadlines and clients, high accuracy, and absolutely no room for mistakes. It was and still is a perfect place for me to grow because it pushes me to think instantly and, on the move, unlike academia where you can take some months thinking about an issue. Industry is strategy – speed – precision.

In industry, it’s very important to learn how to be resilient and protect yourself. Any wrong move can be the end of you. Industry is a jungle and it’s survival for the fittest. And I happen to like jungles and wildlife, lol!

This was a very fun session! Thanks very much, Kea, for honouring our invite. Wishing you more success and prosperity.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you Dr. Kea for sharing your journey with us. We are grateful and happy for you. It is soo encouraging to see young women progress and being successful in Science and farming. Continue to grow. Jesus is Lord !

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