so, over the past few weeks, i’ve had the pleasure of emailing with nonhlanhla khumalo, a south african scientist whose research we’ve discussed on BGLH (here and here.) i initially contacted her on the advice of blogger Jc (thanks girl!), and was pleasantly surprised when she sent this response:
“Thank you for the invitation.
I have also been interested in African hair for ages (started with dodging my mom’s attack with the then mandatory Afro comb). Since then I studied Medicine and later specialized in Dermatology. That’s when I realized what little had been done in African hair research. I have since completed a PhD and started the first academic hair research clinic in Africa. We see all hair types but because of our geographic location probably see more African hair disorders than clinics in most countries.”
because she has limited time, i focused my questions on her experience as a natural hair scientist instead of asking for hair ‘tips’.
i think this interview is particularly relevant in light of our recent discussion on how essence magazine has published some blatantly incorrect advice for natural-haired women.
it’s good to know that there are women dedicated to the science of our hair, and ascribing the value to it that it deserves.
Thank you so much, Nonhlanhla, for agreeing to be profiled 🙂
BGLH: So, I know you touched on this in your last email, but how did you decide to become a ‘natural hair scientist’?
NONHLANHLA: My interest in African hair started with dodging my mom’s ‘attack’ with the then mandatory Afro comb - I wondered why it was so painful! During my training in Dermatology I realized that there were simply no published data that answered many of my questions (including why combing was so painful, factors that explained African hair length etc) — that’s how my passion started.
BGLH: Were there other women/men doing this before you decided to get involved?
NONHLANHLA: Yes there’s a lot of great work being done by superb researchers in many countries. The big gap is still in data that will help us understand hair (and scalp) problems at a population level. By this I mean as doctors we tend to focus on what we see in the clinic — treat the individual patient who comes to us. To really understand disease one needs to understand what happens at the level of the general population. That’s where one can calculate how common a condition is, its spectrum of severity and even get clues about things that may be causing or worsening the condition.
BGLH: What (if any) challenges have you faced in conducting your research?
NONHLANHLA: Realizing that being a dermatologist was not enough for the kind of studies I wanted to do. I needed training in epidemiology and ended up doing a PhD in Public Health — as a mother of three girls — this had its own challenges. It did not help that funders were not keen to fund me because hair research is seen as ‘cosmetic’ and not real disease!
BGLH: Have you been approached by any hair care companies to aid in their research and development?
NONHLANHLA: Yes I have, but am yet to find something I want to get involved in.
BGLH: Who reads your research? (I know it’s kind of an odd question. I guess I’m just curious as to which demographics use and respond to your research?)
NONHLANHLA: Mainly dermatologist — they look after patients with skin and hair diseases
BGLH: How do you get funding for your research?
NONHLANHLA: As I mentioned before, it has been difficult — but to date I have received funding from The South African Medical Research Council and The Discovery Foundation (South Africa).
BGLH: What advice would you give to up and coming scientists who want to follow in your footsteps?
NONHLANHLA: It obviously depends on the type of research, but for scientific studies training is crucial, fortunately research methods are clearly set out. Doing scientific research is like looking for building in a new town. You could drive around stop/ask for directions and may find the place quickly, after hours or never find it — it’s a hit and miss! But if you sit down with a map plan your drive carefully you are more likely to get there in the quickest time.
I would encourage young scientists to first invest in themselves by getting the right training and academic credentials.
BGLH: What is your favorite hair style to do?
NONHLANHLA: I have finely twisted dread locks in a bob; it’s a care free ‘no pain’ style!
more of nonhlanhla…
her official biography
review of her children’s book:
the medical journal she edits