Set on the path of big dreams

Quarraisha Abdool Karim (52) is one of the eminent academics who is involved in efforts to understand the HIV epidemic in South Africa. Her research interests are mainly geared towards helping South Africa to meet its target for the health ­millennium development goals.

She is an associate professor in epidemiology at the Mailman school of public health of Columbia University, New York City, United States. She holds a similar position in public health and family medicine at the Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela school of medicine, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Since 1998 Karim has, through Columbia University, helped to build a science base in Southern Africa known as the Southern African Fogarty Aids International Training and Research Programme.

Some of the influential positions she holds include that of associate scientific director of the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa, as well as co-chair of the HIV Prevention Trials Network, a funded network that sets and undertakes key HIV prevention research globally.

How old are you?
I am 52 years old.

How do you earn a living?
I am an infectious diseases epidemiologist—someone concerned with the occurrence, distribution and control of diseases in populations—and work as an HIV/Aids scientist undertaking global and local research and capacity-building to enhance responses to the HIV epidemic.

Where did you grow up?
In Tongaat, Kwazulu-Natal.

Where and when did you start your primary schooling?
Vishwaroop State Aided School in Tongaat from 1964 to 1971.

Where did you do your secondary schooling?
I was a pupil from 1972 to 1976 at Tongaat High School.

Your tertiary education?
I did my post-matric schooling at the University of Durban-Westville.

Did you have favourite teachers?
Yes, I was privileged to have several throughout my schooling.

Why were you so fond of them?
Because they were inspiring, positive role models, built my self-confidence and shaped my values and who I am today.

What were your favourite subjects and why?
Mathematics and accountancy. I love numbers and applying them to solve problems.

What, specifically, was their influence on you?
Substantial. I grew up in a small and not particularly wealthy community that revolved around the sugar cane plantations, but one that placed a high value on education and encouraged and supported us to dream big and pursue our dreams. All my teachers were dedicated and committed to ensuring that each of us got the best education possible, despite many constraints and challenges.

Do you still have contact with any of them?
No direct contact, but they still carry influence when I am faced with new situations, dilemmas or challenges.

From your point of view, what are the qualities of a good teacher?
Respect, confidence, inspiring, supportive, professional, lead by example, set firm boundaries, consistent and fair, dedicated and devoted to inculcating good values and drawing out the best from all pupils.

What are the things a teacher should never do or say?
Diminish the self-esteem of pupils. Pupils behave and act on what they see, not what they are told, so conduct yourself in a way that is consistent with what you expect from pupils.

Your message for teachers?
You have the huge responsibility of shaping and nurturing our future. How and what you do is critical, so approach this precious task with care, joy, respect and dedication. In this way we can maximise the most valuable asset the country has, namely young minds, so that we can transform our society from a labour-intensive economy to a knowledge-based economy.

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo reports for the Teacher newspaper, a Mail & Guardian monthly publication. Apart from covering education stories, he also writes across other beats. He enjoys reading and is an avid soccer and athletics fanatic. Thabo harbours a dream of writing a book. Read more from Thabo Mohlala

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