Monthly Profiles

Dr Gill Black

April 2014 | Co-founder and Director at the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation

Dr Gill BlackI am co-founder and Director at the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF). SLF is a non-profit organization specializing in research, community engagement and innovation across the thematic fields of Health, Informality, Ecology & Society and Citizen Action. We are based in Wynberg in Cape Town and our work extends into many areas of the Mother City as well as Johannesburg and Durban.
Through my 'first' career as an immunologist, I developed a core interest in health and biomedical science communication, participatory methodology and behaviour change. My work focuses on building partnerships with people who live in high TB and HIV-burdened communities in the creation of innovative, culturally appropriate and sustainable approaches to decrease stigma, enhance awareness and aid the prevention of TB, MDR-TB and HIV in South Africa.

1) Briefly describe what your job involves.
My job at SLF has many different aspects which are divided between spending time in the office helping with the day-to-day management of our organization, and being out and about with our research team in different community settings.

2) What would a typical day at the office entail?
I'm fortunate that my daily activities are usually quite varied but for example right now I am writing up two research papers, putting quite a few new funding applications together, renewing staff work contracts and preparing for our next digital story-telling project which will focus on gender based violence within the context of TB and HIV in Khayelitsha.

3) Can you describe the most exciting part of your job?
I am so excited by the continued expansion and development of SLF, which I co-founded along with 6 other people in 2010. It has been a very encouraging experience, to start an organization from scratch and watch it grow. I also love meeting and working with community members - I have met some incredibly strong, talented, wonderful people in the townships and informal settlements of Cape Town and they inspire me to continue, even when times get tough. Of course it's always fun to go to a conference, and hearing about a successful grant application is very exciting indeed!

4) What are some of the challenges you had to face and overcome as a woman in your career?
It's has definitely been challenging to juggle my career with raising my 3 gorgeous children but I am very fortunate to have had a lot of help and support from family and friends along the way. My kids know that I love what I do and they are proud of it which certainly makes it a whole lot easier.

5) How did you make your career choice?
When I was at high-school in Scotland I was deeply inspired by my biology teacher, Miss Cooney, who had a totally infectious joy and passion for her subject. By the age of 15 I was hooked on Life Sciences and decided that I was going to be a geneticist, and I followed that dream through to receiving my PhD in human immuno-genetics in 1997. My work has been rooted in community-based TB and HIV research since 1993 and through my studies and jobs in Brazil, Malawi and South Africa, I became increasingly aware of the need to find effective methods to engage with community members about the biomedical research activities and public health issues that most affect their lives. In 2010 , when I was 40 years old, I made a major career choice and switched from being a biomedical scientist to a social scientist. I am still a huge advocate of biomedical research however and with my current work I aim to understand how best to bridge the gap between human biologists and the communities they work in.

6) What qualifications do you require to work in your field?
I have a B.Sc. Hons in Immunology and a PhD in Immuno-genetics.

7) Can you describe the most important skills you require for this work environment?
The work that I do now does not use the technical laboratory skills I developed as a biomedical scientist, but I definitely use many of the other skills I developed along the way including research design and co-ordination, data analysis and interpretation, writing, budgeting, and speaking in public. A different type of skill that I need for my current activities is participatory workshop facilitation. Patience and open mindedness are very useful skills to nurture as well.

8) What does leadership mean to you?
Leading by example and practising what you preach. Going the extra mile to keep your team together and being there to support them as necessary in any task you ask them to do. Giving clear direction of the way forward, providing regular motivation and recognition, and stepping back to allow others to use their initiative and find out how much they are capable of.

9) What advice would you give girls who are considering a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematic (STEM)?
If a career in science is your true passion let nothing stop you from reaching your dream. Study well, work hard, make yourself invaluable to your employers and colleagues and you will go far! Be prepared to take the hard knocks; your success will also depend on how you choose to handle rejection. With perseverance there are wonderful opportunities to make new discoveries, meet inspirational people, travel the world and let your experience take you in exciting directions. Number 1 piece of advice - never give up!