Maropeng’s intrepid curator, Keneiloe Molopyane, has dived fearlessly into caves and oceans in search of answers to one of humankind’s most intriguing questions: “Where do we come from?”

Yet, despite her adventures, she counts her journey to her doctorate as among her most daunting challenges.

Molopyane received word from Wits University at the end of February 2021 that her thesis for her PhD (Anatomical Sciences) had been passed.

It’s official: our curator is now Dr Keneiloe Molopyane.

We chatted to her about her fascinating thesis and experience of completing her doctorate in four years.

Molopyane Thesis Submission
Molopyane shows off her doctoral thesis. (Image: Supplied)

So, what’s your thesis about?

My PhD research was on the topic of skeletal trauma.

I analysed approximately 1 104 individual, and complete, skeletons from the cadaveric collection at the School of Anatomical Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand. The skeletons were those of both men and women, young and old, representing the 20th-century population of Johannesburg.

My research primarily involved looking for indications of broken and healed bone fractures and incorporating digitised mapping to reveal any patterns in the data.

By studying these broken bones, I set out to determine if it was possible to reconstruct and understand how these individuals had suffered their injuries. This is very similar to what forensic anthropologists do when working on cases where there is no flesh, only bare bones.

Fascinating stuff! What did it feel like when you got the notice you’d become a doctor in philosophy?

The email landed while I was in a meeting, so I basically ignored it because I was busy at the time. When I got home that evening, my phone was buzzing with messages on Twitter and my personal email inbox telling me to check my Wits email account. I sat down with a glass of wine to read the email. I couldn’t understand what was so urgent.

I just remember reading the words “congratulations”, “thesis passed”, “graduation in July”. I burst into tears … full Kim Kardashian ugly cry. I was so happy!

Kenni at 105
Molopyane is one of the scientists exploring the new 105 site in the Cradle of Humankind. (Image: Mathabela Tsikoane)

What were the best reactions to this news from family or friends?

Dad: “When people call and ask for Dr Molopyane, they’re going to have to be specific.”

Professor Lee Berger (via phone call): “Congratulations! Don’t forget, curfew is at 11pm.”

After having made a social media announcement about my new title, #DrnotMrs, my phone continued buzzing for almost a week with supportive messages from the science community.

I also received a lovely package from my fellow next-gen underground astronauts, Angharad and Kerryn, to congratulate me on the achievement. I cried … again.

Share a memorable moment from your PhD journey?

I really enjoyed my time working in the Raymond A Dart Collection of Human Skeletons laboratory with fellow researchers. We formed a family bond, and the Dart crew was born – just a bunch of young, dynamic researchers, in our element, doing what we love.

Depending on the deadlines, from the corridor outside, you could hear us laughing at jokes, or you would hear music, but no voices, because we would have our heads down, busy typing or staring at bones.

How many cups of coffee did you drink?

Far more than I can count. I could have had an IV line of coffee attached to my arm and still be able to function, that’s how much caffeine I had running through my system. Always remember to drink water – it’s much better for your skin.

I’m not entirely sure what the word count was, but during the height of the writing phase, I never left my desk. At times, I would write and rewrite whole chapters. My fingers were trying to keep up with all the thoughts swirling around in my mind.

In hindsight, what advice would you have given to yourself when starting this PhD journey?

Take your time and don’t be so hard on yourself. You are in charge of the pace.

Would you do it again?

I want to look in your eyes as I say this: not a chance! Kidding. I don’t think I would do another PhD anytime soon. It is far too stressful. But I look forward to working on some new projects with all the friends, colleagues and advisers I made along the way.

Reading Day
Molopyane working on her thesis.

Advice to doctors in the making?

Here’s some advice I got before and during the PhD journey: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Approach this journey one step at a time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. When you need help, ask for it!

What does the future hold?

Oh now, that’s something I’m going to keep to myself and the inner circle for a little while longer. It’s exciting news, though!