At the age of 27, University of Cape Town (UCT) Ph.D. student Malebo Malope made history as the first black genetics counselor in South Africa.
The Ph.D. student said although she was one of the youngest rising stars in the field, she actually battled with the subject when she was first introduced to it in her third year BSc in medical sciences at the University of Limpopo (UL).
“I was struggling in the genetics class and one of my classmates started to tutor me. I fell in love with the subject and got a distinction; It was the second-highest mark in my class,” said Malope.
This led to her attending the University of Cape Town (UCT) to do her MSc (Med) in genetic counseling in 2017.
Malope said genetics counselors were “professionals who have specialized in genetics and counseling”.
“We provide personalized health to patients to make decisions about their health.”
She said they understand conditions that people are predisposed to and how they can be passed on to their children and subsequently how to deal with them.
Genetic conditions such as Down syndrome, sickle cell anemia, and cystic fibrosis are just some of the conditions genetic counselors work with.
Malope said it’s important for people to understand not all conditions can be tested for.
“It’s also important for people to know we don’t give advice, we just provide the information in a non-directive manner and the avenues they can take to allow the patients to make well-informed decisions while providing emotional support,” she said.
Malope, whose roots stem from Limpopo, said she is especially inspired to take her skills there when she has completed her Ph.D.
“I grew up on the West Rand but I am a Limpopian. They don’t have genetic counseling and we have a whole province with these conditions and no one to help,” she said.
Malope said she would also like to create a program at UL because only Wits University and UCT currently have the program which takes four or five students a year.
However, despite her bright future, she said her biggest challenge was believing in herself. “I was very cognizant of the fact that I was going to be the first black genetic counselor. I am doing this for the black child and I can’t fail. I’m very hard on myself.”
Malope said she is lucky to have a supportive supervisor and colleagues.
“I’ve had very inclusive professors and supervisors. Also, we have noticed just how important having black genetic counselors is because I can understand patients’ cultural backgrounds and languages. The other genetic counselors sometimes can’t communicate with their black patients and have to use interpreters.”
Her supervisor, Dr. Tina-Marie Wessels, confirmed that Malope is the first black genetic counselor in the country. “Ms. Malope is passionate about genetic counseling and keen to educate and raise awareness in the community. She is a great asset to South Africa.”