Kimberleigh Ashley Tommy

PhD Candidate, Human Variation and Identification Research Unit (HVIRU), School of Anatomical Sciences, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand

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Stay true to yourself, it is not always easy.

What do you do?

I study the evolution of upright walking (i.e. walking on two legs/bipedalism) in our hominin family tree. This is a very important characteristic and helps define us and our extinct hominin cousins. In order to do this, I study different bones that make up the joints of our lower limb (i.e. hip, knee, ankle). I use high resolution MicroCT scans to look inside the bones and analyze patterns in trabecular or spongy bone. This bone network is very sensitive to loading imposed on it by our posture and movement. I look at fossil hominins but I am also interested in understanding how our bones have changed as our lifestyles shifted and we went from being really active foragers to less active individuals in a post-industrial society, therefore I look at other living humans from different populations and time periods. This can help shed light on some diseases such as osteoarthritis and how it affects joints. I am also interested in what our living primate cousins bones look like because they have a wider range of locomotor behaviours that include tree climbing.

Why did you choose this field?

I chose this field because I have always had a fascination with ancient people and cultures. I was obsessed with Egypt in particular as a young child, I would watch countless documentaries and films on various aspects of Egyptian history. I kind of ignored that though thinking there were no possibilities or jobs in this type of field. In high school I applied to WITS to study medicine, thinking I wanted to become a paediatrician, however, I did not get into medical school but into science instead. I then pursued a Bachelor of Science in Animal Plant and Environmental Sciences where I was exposed to a research project in my third year that involved cataloguing the daily activity of a rehabilitated Spider Monkey. This completely changed my approach and passion as I was in awe of the way the monkey (affectionately named Sarah) navigated effortlessly through the trees. I think that was a turning point for me and I became obsessed with primates and locomotion. It was also in this year that I had a course on evolution and met my future supervisor Dr Job Kibii. I then decided to pursue my love of all things ancient in my Honours and Masters in Palaeoanthropology. South Africa has such an incredible fossil record but I had not known much about it because we were not really exposed to it at a schooling level and many sites are inaccessible financially to a large part of our population. Once I found out about the incredible fossil record we had in our backyard, I made it my mission to ensure that other young people, especially women of colour knew about this field and their potential careers. We do not have many women of colour (or people of colour in general) in our field for many reasons including our nation's history of Apartheid whereby people were systematically excluded from a vast array of opportunities. We are currently still seeing our “firsts” but there are many women who I look up to in my field such as Dr Mirriam Tawane, Dr Nonhlanhla Vilakazi and Dr Dipuo Kgotleng.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

My greatest achievement was receiving my Masters degree with distinction and no corrections in 2018. I was CRIPPLED with impostor syndrome prior to my submission, I was afraid that the project was not sufficient, that I was not capable and that I had somehow messed it up. My supervisors have always been incredibly supportive and they believed in me but I struggled to believe in myself. When my marks came back in, I cried and my supervisor cried as well, he knew how hard I worked on it and how much I wanted to show myself that I was capable. I finished my Masters in a year which is not common because of the scope of the project and it was examined by two leaders in my field who provided positive feedback and motivated me to work on publishing. I wish younger me would have known this was possible and that it is okay to believe in yourself and your abilities, that doesn’t make you arrogant, it makes you confident. It is okay to value yourself and you should not have to dim your light or constantly humble yourself to please others.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love working in STEM because it allows me to solve problems that could potentially benefit others. I love it because it is not a boys only club and it is incredible to work alongside so many passionate, intelligent and talented women who are occupying spaces and making changes. I love STEM because of the endless possibilities and the fact that you are constantly learning and unlearning, challenging and pushing the boundary. I think that it is incredibly fulfilling to contribute to the world in this way. I wake up looking forward to learning something new from someone new daily.

Best advice for next generation?

The best advice I can give is to stay true to yourself, it is not always easy and because we are a minority there is a constant uphill battle but we are making our mark and showing the world and ourselves that our contributions matter. Do not be afraid of your voice but also do not be afraid to listen, we need that engagement in order to survive and thrive in this space. If you are passionate about something, don’t let anyone ever tell you your dream is invalid or you can’t achieve it because you are a woman, that is the talk of weak people who are intimidated by your potential. Build a solid support structure because you will need it as you navigate this life and meet certain challenges, but you will be okay and we are here to help. We will try our best to make this world and our field more inviting and accessible to you, we will fight for you always.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."- Nelson Mandela

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