Kaitlyn Sparks is elated and beaming with pride that she has been selected as one of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) 2023 Rhodes Scholarship recipients. She will soon be on her way to the United Kingdom (UK) to kick-start her new academic journey as a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford. Sparks is one of four UCT recipients to receive this prestigious award this year. The three others are Mokone Shibambu, Dr Joshua Fieggen and Mary Gouws.

“It is impossible to put into words what this scholarship means to me. It is the culmination of so much sacrifice and work – not only by me but by the people around me,” Sparks said.

The Rhodes Scholarship offers young, emerging academics a life-changing opportunity to pursue full-time postgraduate study at one of the world’s leading academic institutions. It means that Sparks becomes one of 10 emerging young leaders from southern Africa who will undertake postgraduate study at Oxford in 2023.

Localising genomics research

Sparks graduated from UCT with a BSc in applied statistics, human anatomy and physiology in 2022. And in March she will graduate with her BMedSci in neuroscience and physiology from UCT as well.

Currently she works in the field of neurogenomics – the study of how DNA affects the nervous system development and disease, and is based at UCT’s Neuroscience Institute, located on the Groote Schuur Hospital precinct. Sparks said her work focuses on how various gene mutations cause neurodevelopment conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, specifically in African patients.

“Because much of the current research in genomics has been done in Europe and North America, there is a huge need to localise this work in Africa.”

“Because much of the current research in genomics has been done in Europe and North America, there is a huge need to localise this work in Africa,” Sparks said. “Neurogenomics keeps me on my toes. With the work being so interdisciplinary, no day is ever boring or monotonous. And in addition to being fascinating and challenging, I really enjoy the fact that my work has an impact on us as human beings.”

‘Pursing my dreams’

As she prepares to make her way to the UK, Sparks said she has plans to pursue postgraduate study in one of two disciplines: either a PhD in genomics and statistics or a master’s and PhD in neuroscience. She said the scholarship presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and means that she can fulfil a lifelong dream of studying at the University of Oxford.

“My first year at Oxford will allow me to explore different areas of the neuroscience and genomics fields, and I am therefore trying to keep an open mind with regards to what in particular I will be researching,” she said. “However, something that is a non-negotiable for me is pursuing a research field that will allow me to improve lives. Whether that will be directly or indirectly remains to be seen, and I’ll always keep a firm grasp on southern Africa because that is important to me.”