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  • Writer's pictureDr A Bashir

18 The Royal We: Part I

As it says on the ‘Bio’ section of the Her Royal Science website, I started this podcast because I love meaningful conversations. Through Her Sci, I aim to learn about people—who they are, what they have seen, and who they want to be. Our latest episode, titled ‘The Royal We’ embodies the Her Sci mission in a way I haven’t yet explored.

To end our Black History Month celebration, I decided to seek out the help of a fellow African in STEM, co-founder of Visibility STEM Africa, Nathasia Mudiwa Muwanigwa. Nathasia and I have many shared passions, an important one being our love for growth and introspection. Connecting online in 2020, our friendship is modern commonplace: we have yet to meet in person, but we have shared many life stories with one another, divulging our hopes and fears to each other as though our souls had met in another lifetime.

It was extremely fitting that, for our first collaboration, we decided to play {THE AND}, a card game that gained popularity on an online channel called The Skin Deep. A few years ago, I stumbled across this YouTube channel. All their videos feature two people, one sitting across from the other. Often times, the featured individuals know each other: sometimes they are/were in a romantic relationship, and other times, they are family members and friends. Every so often, strangers are featured. Each party takes turns asking the other the most probing, introspective, and often startling questions. The conversations are equal parts uplifting and heart-breaking—in other words, human.

With permission from The Skin Deep, Nathasia and I recorded our own human conversation, using prompts from various {THE AND} decks. Please support The Skin Deep by visiting their website, purchasing a deck of your own, and watching their amazing videos on YouTube.

You'll find the audio version of this episode on our website, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Soundcloud.

The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.

Her Royal Science jingle

Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world and welcome to Her Royal Science. Today, we are shaking things up with a new episode format called ‘The Royal We’. My guest and I will be playing {THE AND}, a beautiful card game about connection and introspection, created by The Skin Deep. My guest today is future Dr Nathasia Mudiwa Muwanigwa, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Neurobiology at the University of Luxembourg. Originally from Zimbabwe, she grew up in Botswana, and then returned to Zimbabwe in adolescence. She then completed her Bachelor’s in Human Biology at the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, followed by a Research Master’s in Molecular Mechanisms of Disease at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Her current research focuses on Parkinson’s disease using stem cell-based models. She’s also one of the co-founders of Visibility STEM Africa, an online initiative to celebrate continental and diasporic Africans in STEM, and co-founder of the LuNa Corner podcast. I’m so excited to have Nathasia here today for this collaborative endeavour. Welcome Nathasia!

Nathasia Muwanigwa: Thank you so much for having me; so excited to be here!

AB: I’m so excited to have you! Could you give our audience a brief overview of your research before we start {THE AND}?

NM: Of course! As you mentioned, I’m currently a Neurobiology PhD student at the University of Luxembourg, where I am studying Parkinson's disease. What I actually do is I use stem cells that are derived from patients with Parkinson's disease to generate brain models, little mini-brains that recapitulate the key features of the human midbrain, which is one of the main brain areas affected in Parkinson's disease. Using these mini-brains, I’m trying to study some of the molecular mechanisms and pathways that are affected in Parkinson's, how these impact the way the cell functions, to investigate these different pathways and find targets that we can try and rescue, using drug treatments for example. That’s the general sense of what I’m trying to do in my PhD.

AB: Very, very interesting. And how did you first learn about {THE AND}, the card game that we are about to play today?

NM: You know what? I actually don't even know when it was, but it was a few years ago, fairly early on, when The Skin Deep started their channel. I think I came across it randomly, on YouTube. I watched one episode... I know you are a fan as well and you've watched a lot of the episodes; I think the first one that I watched was that couple... I think his name is Andrew, but I forgot her name... The interracial couple that have had several episodes ... I’m forgetting their names...

AB: Yes! The ones who are trying to have a baby soon? She has some medical issues that they have gone through together...?

NM: Exactly!

AB: excitedly Yes, I know exactly who you're talking about!

NM: You know the folks! I remember watching that episode, and I just loved the format. I loved the depth of the questions; they were just really good questions, questions that you might not ordinarily ask spontaneously in conversations. I also just loved how raw and honest people were in the episodes. Sometimes I would find myself crying; I could feel the person's pain when they were talking about a painful experience. I could relate to a lot of the things. I love {THE AND}. I think it's such a powerful platform, bringing couples, strangers, parent and child, siblings together to have these conversations in such an open and honest way. I love meaningful conversations so, for me, it's just so beautiful. What about you? When did you learn about it?

AB: I had a very similar experience. My first episode of {THE AND} was also a couple. I think he was a musician... She had a hat on, she had red lipstick on, and they were talking about whether or not what she had done constituted cheating.

NM: Ahhh!

AB: excitedly You know who I’m talking about?

NM: excitedly We're clearly fans!

AB: It was that episode! I [thought], ‘Oh my gosh, that's such an interesting conversation to have!’ She had experienced something that she labelled very differently than how he experienced it, and it was [over] the course of the conversation that they realised they had very different viewpoints. But if they had never asked those questions, neither of them would have ever known that.

Then I went through the entire catalogue, so I know those people like I’d know my own family. Like you [said], you just you feel what they're feeling. Sometimes you introspect as well, and you think, ‘If someone were to ask me that question, how would I respond? How would I feel if I heard that answer from someone that I cared about as well?’

I don't know... it's just that human experience that I wish I got more of sometimes.

NM: Same.

AB: Television at times, and movies as well, they’re so manufactured. It’s not truly the human experience anymore. No one monologues as much as people do on This is Us. (Laughter) I wish they did, I wish people were that honest about their emotions. But that's just not the world that we live in, so I sometimes use it as a bit of an escape. I've forced my partner to play with me as well—I think he's come to enjoy it! It's just given me the opportunity to learn more about myself, and learn more about how I see the world. In a selfish way, I benefit tremendously from it. So, that's why, because I knew you love this game, I just knew I had to play with you at some point—I just happened to want to record it as well!

NM: (Laughter) It's so great! And I totally feel you about using it as a tool to reflect on yourself. I don't know if you have the ‘Self' deck. I bought the ‘Self' deck, the ‘Dating' deck and the ‘Friends' deck, and I think I’ve used the ‘Self’ one the most because I don't always have people to use the friends or the dating ones, especially right now. The ‘Self’ one is really good because, the way it works is you write down your intention, your goal, or your dilemma at the moment, before you even begin; after that, you just pick cards and then you try and relate whatever’s on the cards to either that the dilemma, the question, or whatever. Sometimes the questions are just general, but it's been really good. I journal while I’m answering the question, so I just write down my answers. It's been a really good way for me to self-reflect, especially last year when things were just haywire. I really liked it as a way to get in tune with myself. It's a brilliant concept, in general.

AB: It is! And honestly, The Skin Deep and {THE AND} are key factors why I wanted to create the podcast. As much as I do enjoy talking about the science, I care so much about the person, what they've experienced, what they've seen, and how they feel about those experiences, because we just don't ask those questions at a conference. You don't go to a Q&A and say, ‘So tell me about the hardest moment of your doctoral degree.’

NM: Exactly.

AB: I have to give all the props to The Skin Deep because they've contributed so much to my life and my growth. And we're going to grow some more today. I do have my tissue box—I’m all set to go.

NM: I’m good to go too!

AB: Good! As my guest, I would love for you to go first. You can ask the first question to get us started.

NM: Okay, perfect! So, the first question I’d like to ask you is, how do you think others describe you? (Laughter) That’s a hard one, isn’t it?

AB: (Laughter) You started with one of the hardest questions!

NM: I know! Out of the gates, just go! (Laughter)

AB: Yeah, we might as well just to jump in the pool, right? (Laughter)

I've thought about this a lot. I think the bits that I’m insecure about are the things that I tell myself other people talk about when I’m not around.

NM: That’s interesting.

AB: I’m quite introverted, which is sometimes surprising to people, but when I am with a person, one-on-one, I can vibe with them so easily. It's sad, though, but the minute that multiplies, the minute there are four people there, or ten people there, I just fall in on myself. So, when I leave that space, I always go, ‘Oh my gosh, they're going to think I don't like them. They're going to think that I’m mean. They're going to think that I think I’m better than them, and I don't even want to entertain having a conversation with them.’

If I’m in a negative space, then I’ll assume that people think I’m not very warm or something like that, and that's what they say when they talk about me. However, if I’m feeling pretty good, which is honestly, the majority of the time, then I think people would mention that I’m creative.

NM: Mmhmm.

AB: I think people would describe me as [someone who has] deep and profound care for people. Someone who knows me, even in a marginal way, at least one-on-one, would know that. If I have even the slightest drop of care for a person, I will fight for you. I will defend you and I will protect you. Half the time, I don't even have to know you or like you very much. But I’ll still...

NM: go hard for people, mmhmm.

AB: Yeah! I hope that people see that. I think that's where I’ll end, or else we’ll end up talking about this for a while.

NM: But I have to say that I actually can see that in you. I think it's something I noticed in you when we first interacted—the caring profoundly for people.

AB: Really?

NM: Yeah, because you do radiate the sense of warmth. When I talk to you, I just feel safe... I don't know if that's the word to use exactly, but I remember this time when we were texting on WhatsApp a while back, I don’t exactly remember the content of the texts anymore, but there was something, like, ‘Asma’s just really easy to talk to it, and I just feel very welcome in this space.’

I definitely think that, at least for people like me—and I’m sure there's been other people— [where] maybe we don't even know each other that well, but you do give that vibe off to people, at least for me you do.

AB: Thank you! Aww, that makes me happy. You never know if it's going to translate, because sometimes [I] reach out to someone, and I feel like I’m overstepping. That's the other side of it, where I think people are going to think, ‘Why is she in my business? Why does she think she can ask me this question?’

NM: Yeah!

AB: Then other times, I’m [think], ‘Okay, let them see my intention; let them see my heart. I hope that they can see what I’m trying to do.' If someone's having a rough day, I do want people to feel like they can reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, can we talk?’ or ‘Can you just be on the phone and listen to me breathe for five minutes?’ I’m fine with that too, but you never know if people are going to receive that energy. And, people are dealing with their own stuff.

... That is such a tough question!

NM: Let's just go for the jugular! Let’s start hard!

AB: Okay! Well, I'll return the favour! What is a mistake that you keep repeating?

NM: (Laughter) Oh, what is the mistake that I keep repeating... Umm, I think a mistake that I keep on repeating is I have a tendency of giving people the benefit of the doubt, even when I know that I shouldn't. I guess I’ve had people in my life over the years, where I know that they're not good in my space or it's just not a good situation—and this is friendships, relationships— but I keep on finding excuses for them, and keep them around me until it gets to a point where it's so bad that there's no other choice but to cut them off, even though I probably should have done that way, way, way back. And I do it again and again, people who are in my space, who I know are probably very toxic, I have a tendency to just be like, ‘they're a good person!’ and ‘no, we’ve been friends for X amount of years, so I can’t,’ and then ultimately, it's not good for them, or for me, because the relationship is just not a healthy one.

That is definitely a mistake I make quite frequently, because I always try and see the good in people, but sometimes even though someone may 100% be a good person, [that] doesn't mean that you're good together as friends, as partners, as whatever it is. I think I’ve had to learn to be a little bit more honest with myself—or I need to learn actually because I don't necessarily know if I’m over that yet.

I don't know, I just want to see the good in people, especially if I’ve been friends with them for a while; even if they keep doing crappy things, I’ll keep on making excuses for them. It's not healthy for me, or even for the other people sometimes—maybe I’m also just not the right person to be in their space, you know?

AB: Absolutely; I have to say I’m quite similar in that respect. I’m trying to outgrow it. It's tough, though.

NM: Yeah, it’s hard.

AB: I think we've all been taught to see the good, right? To see the good in people, to see the good in situations. Going back to caring deeply about people, I do know that, because that basis is there, I try to pass off the bad thing or the bad action as a glitch: But, that’s not who they are. Then I came across this quote, I think it's Tupac, who said: I might want you to still eat, but just not at my table.

NM: Mmhmm! I love that!

AB: I still want everything to be good for you, I want you to have all the success in the world, I want you to be happy, I want you to be healthy, I want you to find people that love you, but it just might not be me. (Laughter)

NM: You know, that's such a powerful thing, and I think it's been a lesson that has been hard for me to learn, because I think I’m quite naturally a carer, and I always want to care for people. All my friends are always telling me this, ‘Girl, you can't be Mother Theresa to the world. You're only one person, and also you need to take care of yourself.’

It's easy to be in that space where you feel like you always have to make accommodations for people, and be understanding to them, but like you said, you can still want good for people, but you don't have to be the one actively doing anything to make their lives better. There are other people there, they also may need to take that ownership of their own lives to get to where they need to be.

But that's been something I constantly find myself being, in that situation where, after the fact I’m like, ‘Yeah you knew six months ago that this wasn't it; that friendship was toxic from the jump!’

You live and learn, I guess, but that's definitely something that came to mind.

Okay, your turn! Let’s see...

AB: I suddenly got very nervous. I feel like the next question is going to be big!

NM: I’m actually debating myself; do I want to go for a hard hitter, or do I want to keep it nice... Okay, let's go to a nice one. What do you admire most about yourself?

AB: Oh, I have to think about that one... (whispering) What do I admire?

I like that I don't get stuck. When I realise that something is not working for me, I’m thinking of my way out. I know that there are a lot of people around me, including some family members and friends, who I’ve seen get sucked into the way things are. ‘Oh, you’re supposed to struggle to get to the next stage’ and ‘you have to sacrifice things’. If I just don't feel like it's worth sacrificing, I’m out. It's just non-negotiable for me.

NM: I love that actually!

AB: Aww, thank you! At first, I don't think I admired it about myself; I actually used to call myself a quitter. [I’d say], ‘I’m not the fighter, I’m the quitter, and I’m okay with that.’ That is not a bad word, but I never admired it.

NM: I read it somewhere, or I heard it somewhere—and something I’ve realized—is that there's no honour in sticking around in a situation that doesn't serve you. A lot of people do it. Like, you're not getting any cookies for that; you're just being miserable. [And] quitting isn't necessarily a bad thing, because sometimes things are not for you, and being able to realize that and go through with it is actually sometimes harder than sticking it out.

People think quitting is an easy thing—it's not. Or walking away... it’s terribly difficult to do, so I admire people who have the strength to do that, because it's a lot easier to just stay in the funk, you know?

AB: Absolutely... Oh, this one is kind of happy! When you think about the first time you fell in love, what do you remember?

NM: Aww. That’s a cute question!

AB: Yeah, it made me go ‘aww’ when I found it! (Laughter)

NM: When I think about the first time I fell in love, I just remember being super excited and giddy. I would say, the first time I would consider that I was in love, I was 17 or so.

AB: Oooh! You experienced real love very early; good for you!

NM: (Laughter) I would say, my first serious boyfriend, I was in love with him. I don't know; it was just really fun. I think that was what made me believe in love, if that makes any sense. I just remember being so excited, you know, the butterflies, just wanting to talk to him on holidays, wanting to meet him. It was so fun! I’m really grateful that I had a pretty good first relationship, and we dated for quite some time.

It was a pretty healthy relationship, and I think it taught me that relationships can be fun, and you can be friends. I remember feeling like I had a best friend, someone I could count on, who I had fun with. It was such a fun and beautiful thing. And also, I was still so young and childish, and I have very fond memories about my first serious relationship. Yeah, I had ‘boyfriends’ before that...but you know how it is in high school!

AB: (Laughter)

NM: But I dated this person into a bit of university as well, so [it] started in high school and then went on for a few years, so he was in my life for quite some time. We actually stayed friends, more or less, over the years, because I think we actually were really good friends and had a good experience. I’m glad I have fond memories about that—just the excitement and the giddiness—just cute feelings. It was really nice, and I’m glad I [had that experience], because I know not everyone has very positive memories of their first loves. Relationships can be very toxic, right? Your first love might be a very unhealthy relationship.

AB: Yeah, sometimes it is. Am I allowed to ask a follow-up question?

NM: Oh yeah, of course! We can always segue.

AB: When/how did it end?

NM: Umm, I think it was just circumstances. We were at the same uni, but he had to leave for reasons, and then there was distance. I think we were probably both a bit too young and immature to do the whole long-distance across continents [thing].

We were kids. I don't think either of us really had the bandwidth to make the relationship work in that context. I think, also, we were each other's first really serious relationship, and I think we were young. We both wanted to see other people, do other things in a sense, but I think that's why we were able to stay friends, even after the fact, because I don't think it ended in a very bad way. It was just, ‘It's not working, per se.’ Of course, there were little dramas that happened—not to say there was nothing—but I think, overall, sometimes it just doesn't work. You're far away, then you grow up, and you meet other people. But he’s someone I think I’ll always have love for. He was a good person; he is a good person, but yeah.

I feel like that was a bit of an incoherent answer!

AB: That’s okay! That makes total sense to me.

NM: I was like, ‘Oh, giddy!’ (Laughter)

AB: (Laughter) If that's what you remember, that's what you remember. I’m not going to sit here and be like, ‘That's wrong.’

NM: Yeah, like, ‘No you don't feel like that, that’s not a way to feel’.

AB: (Laughter)

NM: What do you think is the most important lesson you're learning at this stage in your life?

AB: Umm... I think I’ve always had a little bit of this, but 2020 definitely shoved it into my view: really savouring the day. [Since the pandemic started], I think a lot of us have had this universal panic of, 'I could actually get COVID and die.'

I mean, I’ve had some health issues in the past, but for the most part, I’m healthy. I don't have major issues that I have to contend with on a daily basis, but every time I get the slightest cough...

NM: Girl... (Laughter)

AB: Or I feel a little warm...

NM: Girl!

AB: [I think] this could be the beginning of the end! Maybe that was one of the reasons why I’m feeling even more centred with my idea of not getting stuck because I’m thinking, ‘Okay, if I die next year, what do I want my last year to look like?’

Oh, can I actually jump off of that point onto something that made me realise that I wanted to change my life?

NM: Mmhmm!

AB: At some point, I think in the third or fourth year of my PhD—because I’ve always been fairly aware of death—I thought, ‘gosh, it would suck to die at this point in time.’ And I’d never felt that before.

NM: Wow! That’s such an interesting perspective. It’s pretty powerful. It’s awful, but it says a lot. It tells you, ‘I’m probably not particularly very happy where I am right now.’

AB: Yeah, it just felt like I was going through the motions, and I was looking at the people around me, looking at people that I looked up to in academia, who seemed to be doing the same thing, day in and day out, and I’m not very good at that. I want there to be differences, and monotony is not really my vibe. So, when I saw other people doing that—and that was the path people were placing for me, they were putting stones along this path to get me there—it just didn't gel with me. Looking back, there was nothing horribly wrong with my PhD, but it just was a lot of the monotony. It was a lot of the experiments, and ‘I’m going to work on this paper’ and ‘I’ve been working on this paper for a year now’ and ‘Now that we submitted, I need to do my committee meeting.’ You go through that whole thing.

NM: Yeah.

AB: But that was the point at which I thought it would suck [to die]. So now, I never want to have that feeling again, and COVID has just reminded me, each day could be your last—make sure you’re happy. Make sure, if this is the last day, you could look back and go, ‘I did okay.’

NM: Words to the wise. I think people forget that life is finite. Death sucks to think about for most of us, but it's real and, at the end of the day, you don't know when it's coming, so try to live the best version of your life that you can, in whatever circumstances you can. Of course, you always have barriers and limitations and struggles—that's always going to be present but try to enjoy it and have fun. Indeed, if this is the last week, the last year, even the last five years, you want to look back and be like, ‘You know what, I did what I needed to do. I am happy. I did things that made me happy.’ Be intentional about doing things that make you happy.

Just to piggyback off that, I’ve realized, also because of this COVID thing, a lot of the things that we stress about don't really matter in the grand scheme of things. There's a lot of things that we stress about; a lot of things that we do generally don't matter. It's all stuff that we just do because you know, society blah blah, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. You need to really sit down with yourself, and acknowledge what actually matters, and what are the things I’m just doing. There's a lot more important things, yet we put so much weight on things that often have no real value to our lives, but it's hard to see that sometimes when you’re just caught up in the motions, you know?

AB: Mmhmm, and when you’re surrounded by people who obviously believe that those things are important.

NM: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

AB: When I was finishing up, people were telling me, ‘Oh, you need to have more publications!’ and then I started having those existential thoughts of, ‘What is a publication? Will the publication keep me warm in my grave? Will it help me have good deeds? What is it really?’ And then I sounded like I was insane because everyone else is like, ‘Just get the paper!’

NM: Get the damn paper! Nature, Cell! Publish!

AB: (Laughter) Exactly! Maybe I just didn’t buy into it, and that probably made me not the best student in the world. Maybe if I’d pushed myself harder, or if I had I had strived for more, then I would have had 10 first-author papers, or whatever.

NM: But that’s not your journey. There are people who want that for themselves, but I also hate this notion [of] people telling other people and telling me what is the correct thing to do: ‘You must do this, you must publish this many papers, if you want to be the best this.’ No, I will do things in the way that I feel is making sense for me, because the reality is that life has no formula. If there's one thing that I’ve learned in 27 years of existence, life has zero formula. People tell you, ‘Do this this this this this’ but I might do it the other way. Of course, there are some formulas that work for the most part, but just because there's one formula, doesn't mean that there aren't twenty others that would get you to the same place, right? Take people's advice with a grain of, ‘Okay, that's your perspective. I'll take it into consideration, but it might not work for me.’

AB: Yes, absolutely!

NM: Yeah, it just triggered me a bit because I get so irritated with the people [who say] ‘you need do it like this.’

AB: I have felt it. Don’t worry, I feel you. Is it my turn to ask a question?

NM: Yeah, it’s your turn.

AB: (Chuckles) Speaking of things that irk you, what are your top three pet-peeves?

NM: Okay, my top three pet-peeves: my number one pet-peeve is people who just spit all over the place. I hate that!

AB: (Laughter)

NM: Whoever’s listening to this, please don't just spit on the sidewalk! Why? Why? It just drives me up the wall; I cannot! When I just see somebody just spitting, oh my goodness, I cannot! As you can probably hear from my voice, I’m just getting irked at the mere thought of it. It just grinds my gears, I can’t. Hate that. And even if I’m walking and I look down, then see a little spit puddle...

AB: Oh, gosh.

NM: What is wrong with you? Just swallow that nonsense!

AB: (Laughter) I know!

NM: Just, what is your problem?

AB: I feel you on a deep primal level!

NM: Girl, I just can’t... I’m trying so hard not to swear. Can I swear?

AB: I’ll bleep it out, don’t worry. My mum listens to this!

NM: (Laughter) I’ve been trying to keep my mouth clean!

Umm... I have a pet peeve of people who just aren’t straightforward. I like people who say what's on [their] chest. The irony is that I’m not necessarily the best at doing that, which is very ironic, because you would think that I would be a sharpshooter, but I’m not always. I think I’m getting better, slowly.

AB: Wait, but don't they say that the reason you can see a flaw in someone else is because you carry that flaw yourself?

NM: It could be. It could be, because generally I like people who are just honest and straightforward. You know if someone's running around circles, not being honest with you, not being straightforward, it's just like, ‘Don't waste my time.' Even if it makes me upset, I’d rather be upset rather than we spend twenty years getting to the point we're going to get to anyway, so that is a pet peeve of mine.

Last pet peeve: general messiness. I can deal with it but I generally get irritated [by] people who are [messy]. I’m not a clean freak, where everything has to be straight, at a 90-degree angle, but people who don't clean up after themselves—I think this relates more to the lab—I really get irritated when somebody leaves their bench with a lot of stuff, or there's a shared bench at the Western blot station and somebody just leaves tips all over the place. Like, you know we all use this. I find myself doing this so often, that I go and I just clean up, even if I don't need to use the thing because I just can't look at it. I just hate people who don't clean up after themselves, especially in a shared space. It's just rude; your mama ain't here, clean up after yourself. Please just be respectful. But also, you know I’m from an African household, we were taught to clean errything.

AB: Mmhmm!

NM: You don't leave your dishes just lying there; for who?

AB: Exactly!

NM: I think I just like people who are respectful of the fact that other people want to use something, so they make sure that they're leaving it in the state that they found it.

Umm, sowhat is the greatest lesson your family taught you?

AB: Ooh! Okay, I don't actually have to think too long about that one. I appreciate that my family taught me that the label—being my mother, being my father, my brother etc—doesn't actually mean anything. And if they do something to offend me, I have every right to walk away.

NM: I love that.

AB: Seeing the way my parents relate to their parents, I always expected them to do the same to me—but I’m your mother; but this is your father, you can't disrespect him. Who cares if he hurt you? Who cares if he hit you? Who cares if he made you feel bad about yourself? That was a non-negotiable in my house.

NM: Wow.

AB: Being my mother is not a title that warrants her...

NM: ... to treat you in any kind of way.

AB: Yes! To treat me badly, or hurt me. She doesn’t get free reign. I love her, and I love her more because of that. She and I have a beautiful relationship, and I’ll forever be grateful for the foundation that she set for me, as a woman. I’ll appreciate that until the day I die. But that freedom, to know if my mom just turned on me, for whatever reason, sold me to the wolves and said, ‘She's despicable—I hate her.’ I don't have to entertain that. I don’t have to sit around...

NM: Yeah, ‘because it’s my mom’...

AB: And I appreciate that they did that because I realised that that was really rare in her day.

NM: Yeah! It’s rare in our day, not even her day. I don't even have that; I think it's very rare, but it's something I thought about a lot, and it's something I tell people a lot: this concept that because somebody is related to you, you have to give them some pass is absolute nonsense.

The reality is you don't choose the family you're born in; you're just born. The reality is you might be born into a very trash and toxic environment with people who are not good people. Just because somebody is your parent doesn't mean they're a good person. Unfortunately, it's hard to take that in but it's the reality. Some people are just trash, and they may be trash and your parents, or your sibling, or whatever.

I think I’ve always struggled with that idea that just because somebody is related to me, I need to just give them [a pass], so I like the fact that even your parents themselves were like, ‘If we do something, you have the autonomy to walk away’. I think so many people keep toxic family members in the lives, who continue to drag them down, who also actually don't even have the best intentions for them. They feel like, ‘Oh, that's my mom, that's my dad, that's my brother, I have to be there for them,’ not to say you should just discard your family, but the reality is some people are not good people and sometimes there's nothing that you can do to change that either. When I was younger, I would see issues with my parents in some shape or form and think that I could do something about it, and it’s like, ‘No, sis. They are also adults who have made choices, who have their own opinions and such. You are their child; of course, you're important, but you can't necessarily change them because you're their child.’

I think a lot of young people, especially if you're in a home that's a bit tumultuous, you think you can do something about it, but you probably can't.

AB: And it's not fair for a child to feel that way at any point in their life. A lot of parents sometimes—I’ve found, just watching {THE AND} and watching Iyanla: Fix my Life—use their children as pawns to get back at the other parent.

NM: Oh yeah, they do!

AB: Which is so unhealthy as well.

NM: It’s so toxic.

AB: That’s another thing that I kind of learned from my parents, and specifically my mother. My mom was the parent that was around more, so I’m sure she would have every capacity to bad-mouth my father, because he was away working or whatever, but I like that she had the class to say ‘Yeah, he's not around, but he's also not around to defend themself.’

NM: Yeah, I’m not going to trash-talk him because he’s not around.

AB: Yeah, it just wouldn't be fair to him, but it also wouldn't be fair for me, as a child, to carry that with me and then [I feel like] I’m supposed to try and get my parents together? That’s a lot of pressure on a child! You have to be 10 and you have to be a marriage counsellor...

NM: and pass Maths!

AB: And you have to navigate recess politics, who you’re going to sit next to during break!

AB/NM: It's too much!

AB: Yeah, I appreciate that for sure.

NM: That's a lovely thing that they gave you because I think it's rare. I haven't seen that so much in general, so that’s great that you had that experience.

AB: I will thank my mother today for that.

NM: You should. That’s good parenting right there, honestly.

AB: Could I ask you the same question?

NM: Yeah, sure. The greatest lesson my family taught me is probably resilience. My parents are both ridiculously resilient people. I don't always know if it's a good thing as well. I am a bit on the fence on that, but I also think that as much as I’m on the fence on that, it's also a trait that will get you going forward, even when things are trash. My family's been through a lot of nonsense over the years—since I was born, since probably before I was born—we've been through a lot of highs and some low lows. I've seen both my parents be in not so great or positive situations, but they've never given up. They've never been like, ‘Woe is me; life is over. I can’t keep going.’ They've always picked themselves up and started again. That's another thing: that ability to start again—my dad always says this, ‘As long as you’re alive, you can start over.’

AB: Mmm.

NM: Which is true; as long as you’re still breathing, you can pivot and do something else. The only thing that will stop you is being dead, honestly. I think that's been a great lesson because whenever I’ve been through things that were really tough, I just kept going. I was like, ‘You know what? This is temporary. It sucks now, but I know if I just ride this wave I can be in a different situation in a few months.’ And that's really kept me going when sometimes things just seemed bad.

I’m grateful for that in ways, but again, the whole resilience thing, I’m still on the fence about how I feel about it to an extent. It's great, but also, I think having to always be resilient also means you're always being dealt a bad hand. Should you always have to ride the wave?

AB: That’s exhausting.

NM: It’s exhausting, exactly. And you're human. Being resilient, sometimes you have to be above stuff and just keep going, even when you're tired, and that's not always a good thing, because I think it'll come back to you in other ways.

But I still am grateful because I think the resilience has, in ways, got me as far as I’ve gotten. It’s why I’m here now. If I wasn't resilient, I probably would not have had the drive or the patience, or the tenacity to do certain things, or to be in certain spaces.

I was going to ask, if you had a child, what advice would you give them about the world?

AB: Okay, honestly, when I saw that question, I was hoping that I wouldn’t get that question. (Laughter)

NM: That’s why I threw it to you!

AB: I mean, the honest answer is, I don't know.

NM: I think that's fair.

AB: Our world is just... it's a mess.

NM: Chaotic.

AB: Yeah. And if I were to have a child, my child would be Black, and if we stay in the US and Canada, that means that they will have to endure things that I’m not going to be terribly happy with it.

I just can't see a way to explain it. I just don't see it—how do I explain someone hating my child because of who they are, or because of who I am, and who my parents are?

NM: Mmhmm.

AB: It's so disturbing to even think about. And I commend people who, even in the last year—in the middle of the pandemic—have been able to bring life into this world and not be completely petrified because I’m scared for people.

NM: Yeah, absolutely.

AB: And it’s strange because I think we’re entering that stage in our lives, where people around us and people around our age are having babies. Some of my good girlfriends are having babies, and when I think about the advice that I would give to a child, I think about their kids, and I think about what my place would be in their village. I do think that it takes a village to raise a child, and to raise a child well, and when I think about children being born, I think about how I can be that my girlfriends’ close enough person that her kid can come to me if there's something that's troubling them.

NM: Be that auntie.

AB: Yeah! So, I don't have an answer to that question—I don't know what I would tell the child.

NM: I honestly think that's fair.

AB: But all I do know is that I will be there to support my hypothetical child. And all the people around me who are having children, I got you. I’m here and I will be a support because it's impossible to do alone, and it seems like it's getting a little bit harder. They're just more conversations to have. How would you even go about explaining the last four years in the US? How would you go about explaining the remnants of apartheid in South Africa?

NM: Mmhmm, absolutely. There’s so many issues and how to even have the vocabulary... It's hard; people who raise children, shout out to all of you, because it's not an easy thing at all.

AB: No, not at all. I’m in admiration for the people who do it, and who do it well

NM: Exactly. A lot of people have kids, but it can also go in a different direction, if they are not intentional about the things they're doing so.

AB: Yeah... I saw that [question] and I [thought], ‘I wonder what her answer will be’ but I was hoping to not get it asked of me!

NM: (Laughter)

AB: Umm... Ah! If you had the opportunity to live in another country, where would you go?

NM: Umm... you know, I saw this question... I actually don't even know if I know... I would like to actually like in the UK, specifically in London, for a while, just because so many people have told me that I would probably love London.

AB: I think you would! I lived there for a bit; it's cool. I think you'll like it [and] you'll fit in. It's a good vibe.

NM: Yeah. I feel like I’m just really curious because so many people told me, ‘You would like London.’ Maybe one day—you never know, might end up there, because I am one to wander and end up in places.

AB: (Laughter)

NM: It's not far-fetched by any means!

AB: Have you started thinking about postdocs, and post-PhD stuff... all that good stuff?

NM: To an extent, but not extensively. I think I’ve had moments, especially last year, when I was so heavy into Visibility STEM [Africa], where I was even like, ‘I could make this my full-time thing after my PhD,’ — which I can! But I also realized that I also really love being in the lab, at the moment though. You know, things change.

At the moment, I think I’m open to the idea of staying in academia, but I also have never seen myself staying for the long-haul. I don't see myself like being a PI; I don’t see myself having a lab, not because I’m not capable, but just because it just doesn't sound like my path. I've always liked doing so many things, and what I’ve loved Visibility STEM is it’s given me the flexibility to do whatever I want with the thing.

AB: Yes!

NM: I mean, it's me and my co-founders, but when something is yours, you kind of just decide, ‘I want to do this with it,’ you know? And I love that. I love being able to be creative in ways and helping people in a way that's more tangible. I always felt like whatever I was going to do in my life was going to actually impact people in some way, shape, or form.

AB: Yeah.

NM: So, I’m starting to think about it because I’m now starting my third year, so I have two years left. I think it's about time to start thinking about it because depending on what you want to do, you need to really apply for things before you're done.

I think I’m very open, but one thing—I’ve always opened myself up to opportunity. I have never had tunnel vision, where, ‘I’m going to do this one thing.’ I’ve always been like, ‘Hey you never know—in a year's time, maybe some random opportunity that I never thought about will come about and I’ll consider it,’ because life is for the living.

AB: Yes, same! It's actually really refreshing to meet someone and speak with someone who—it sucks but—validates your experience, because I definitely feel that way as well. I feel like most of this conversation is just been going, ‘me too... me too!’ (Laughter)

NM: (Laughter)

AB: But it's true! I've also felt like I had so many passions and ideas of what I want to do, and who I want to be, that when people would tell me, ‘Oh, because you're doing your PhD, you'll go to a postdoc, and then maybe you'll do one more, and then you'll become a PI,’ that felt very limiting to me. There are some people who are fully content with that lifewith the writing of the grants, and not being in the lab anymore—as a PI you're just basically behind a computer, for the most part. I do know that when I was looking at my mentors, and the people who were around me, that was not the life I wanted for myself. I could do it for a period of time; I was willing to give it a go, but the creativity that I knew I had within me was not really being tapped fully.

Also, the notion of having that tangible change, sooner rather than later... When I was doing traumatic brain injury research and then later on dabbling in Alzheimer’s disease research, I knew that even if I discovered something, it’d be 30 years, 40 years before it even made it into a patient's hands and was actually being used abundantly. Whereas, when I do stuff like Her Sci, where people are hearing other people's stories and feel seen and heard, that's immediate; that is a tangible change that someone can say I had on someone.

I’m looking for that, more than anything else. People always used to say, ‘Oh aren't you trying to get that Nobel Prize for Medicine?’ I was like, ‘No, I’d rather get a Nobel Peace Prize.’

NM: Yeah, I feel you.

AB: That was always my response because, in my mind, I don't want to be 92 and winning something. It's cool if someone wants that; it’s totally cool if you want to dedicate 50 years, 60 years of your life to medicine, understanding a human problem, and fixing it for a lot of people.

NM: Yeah, it's a beautiful thing but it's not for everyone.

AB: Yeah, exactly. And I think it's okay to have different dreams.

NM: Yeah, that's the thing. One of the things my parents always say to me is I always loved doing too many things. When I was in primary school, every day they didn't know what time to pick me up because I always had a different activity. I was in the Marimba band, I was in the choir, I was in the Girl Guides, I was doing softball; I was doing all sorts of things, and that's never changed.

Even last year, I was doing so many things! Between the PhD, Visibility STEM, and so many things in between. I was moderating Parkinson’s disease talks. Almost everything seems to lead back to science, but it's not always in terms of research.

AB: Yup.

NM: Because I think, for me, I’m really passionate about making science accessible to people that it's not accessible to all the time. And more importantly for me, is giving, especially Africans, that space to feel confident within science, right? Because a lot of the time, Africans aren't amplified; they have lot more barriers and limitations. For me, that's something I could see myself doing for a long time because it's ever-evolving. You get to work with different people: you can work with kids, you can work with teenagers, with people already further along in their career, and I like that idea.

At the same time, I’m open. I might completely change and do neither, and do something else! And that's beautiful—that's why life is what it is because you can choose to do other things. I love to cook, for example, and I’ve always had this dream of having a food truck, so I might just drop all of it and just become a chef!

AB: I’ll support that! I’ve never been one track minded either... you know what? You can even do the food truck thing and then come back [to science]. Or you could do that for 40 years, if you want to. Or you could go become a librarian and you would make all those kids love coming to the library, you know what I mean?

NM: Exactly! Life is finite, so I want to try and take as much of it as I can, and do the things that are making me happy in that moment.

AB: Same.

NM: And that will change. Knowing me, I don't think I can be content with doing the same thing indefinitely. I can't. I know myself; I’d get bored. (Laughter)

AB: Me too!

NM: I need some spice in my life. I need some flavour. I need some different things.

AB: Oh, I get that, 100%.

NM: Yeah, I think it’s me now. Me asking you?

AB: Yeah!

NM: Okay, what is your greatest fear about getting older?

AB: I think that's multi-faceted for me. The act of getting older—I’m not too worried about. I’m not too worried about going grey, or having wrinkles—although I’ve looked at my mom, I’m not going to get wrinkles! (Laughter)

NM: (Laughter) It don’t crack, sis!

AB: It don’t! But I do think about losing my mind; not being me anymore. I have come to terms with losing my parents, but I have not come to terms with losing my brother. I mean, we're so close in age that my entire life has just been him. It's me and him. He's like my day one, my ride or die.

NM: Who’s older between the two of you?

AB: He's a year and eight months older... or a year and nine months older? I think we counted at some point, but the number changes in my mind. Essentially, we were raised as twins and it worked out nicely. My mom would say, ‘Even if you have a different birthday, you’re twins [to me]. No one is older than the other, no one is better than the other.’

It worked out for me because as the younger child, I was more likely to be treated like the baby and I don't think my mother wanted that. She didn’t want me to be treated like ‘the girl’ [either], like, ‘You have to do X, while your brother can relax and have friends over and play video games.’ I think she was adamant about that because she'd experienced it in her own life, and didn’t want to redo what her parents did. She has 10 brothers, all of whom are younger than her. She became a third parent very, very early and she never wanted me to feel like I was the pseudo-mom, because why would you put that pressure on a child?

NM: Mmmn, yeah.

AB: So, I think it’s losing my mind, losing my brother, and—I don't think this has to do with getting older, but I think it has to do with dying—just feeling like I didn't do enough. I wanted to do more. I wanted to reach more people. I wanted to share more happiness; I wanted to just do more.

NM: I think I used to feel that more when I was younger, for some reason, but recently I don't worry about that anymore, because last year, I did so much stuff. And it felt good, but at the same time, I also felt empty sometimes. I’m like, ‘I’m doing all the stuff. I’m getting all these pats on the back and accolades and articles about me.’ Sometimes, I actually find more joy just chilling with someone I really like, and sometimes, I think those moments are the moments that actually matter more than all these other things. Does that make sense?

AB: Oh, for sure! Do you think that sometimes people only refer to doing enough, as in the labels and the accolades?

NM: Yeah!

AB: Oh, okay. I’m weird. I think about doing enough as in making sure I called the right people to let them know that I loved them, you know those little moments.

NM: Before I didn't think like that, but now I think like that, you know? Those moments—those human moments—where like I’m connecting with people and, like you said, reaching out to people I care about, I feel like I’ve done that more.

Achievement-wise, I've done a lot of stuff. I graduated top of my class, I got this big scholarship, I started a thing.

AB: Yeah!

NM: I can list all these amazing things that, objectively, someone would be like, ‘Wow! You've done so many things!’ I’m not saying that I’m not proud of myself, but I feel like those things are just like one facet of my existence and sometimes, not even the most important.

AB: Facts! I completely understand.

We can either do one more question, or end here, because that was a beautiful end.

NM: Up to you, girl! Want to ask me one more thing, or shall we wrap it? Up to you.

AB: Let's do one more each, and then we can go ahead and say our goodbyes... This is going to be a pain to edit, I’ll tell you that! (Laughter)

NM: Yup! Gave you some homework!

AB: I’m going to be busy for the next little!

NM: I’ll ask you one and then you ask me the last one, yeah?

AB: Sounds good.

NM: When was the last time you felt blissful?

AB: The last time I felt blissful... honestly, it was yesterday.

NM: Oh, what happened yesterday?

AB: I had a lovely interview with a woman that I admire in so many ways, and as we were wrapping up the call—it was such a small thing—she wanted to do it again. She [said], ‘You're amazing at this! Can we talk again?’

NM: Aww, yeah. I can get that. I feel her; I was even thinking, ‘We should do this all the time!’ I can’t tell you how much I value a good conversation. For me, it's one of the most like beautiful things. You can't put a price on a good conversation, honestly. You can't.

AB: Well, let’s go deep. What is the pain you would like to heal in yourself?

NM: How did I know that (Laughter) I knew it!

AB: sheepishly I’m sorry! It’s such a good question!

NM: It is a really good question. It’s a very common one on {THE AND} episodes. Usually it’s, 'what is the pain you would want to heal in the other person? '

AB: Exactly, yes. I switched this one up because I had the Couple’s deck... so I [thought] let’s not ask about each other. (Laughter)

NM: Yeah, fair enough. The pain, I’d like to heal in myself... woo, this is a deep question.

I have experienced quite a fair amount of trauma in different ways. My mom getting sick was one big thing, you know? It was a major thing that affected me. It was almost four or five years collectively, when my mom was just not herself, and my mom and I super close. Moving back to Zimbabwe spontaneously because of that situation was pretty tough, readjusting. Also, my childhood wasn't always so great. There was a bit of abuse—not to me per se but abuse in my environment—also alcoholism was present in the environment.

Growing up, I knew it was messed up and it affected me, but I didn't acknowledge that affected me. I always just used to push forward. But then I realized that I never actually acknowledged that a lot of the things that happened when I was young hurt me. That hurt and pain has manifested in different ways, now that I’m older, that aren't necessarily healthy.

I think I would like to like heal that pain of my childhood, some of those events that happened that I never got to talk about. No one ever really said, ‘That was messed up; let's talk about how you feel.’ I never had an outlet for these things, so I think I’ve internalised a lot of trauma throughout the years. Young Tasia would have appreciated having an outlet. It’s something I’m working through, healing through, but it takes a while to really unpack twenty-plus years of stuff that's happened that you never acknowledged. I’m really good at internalizing and not acknowledging things but that's not a healthy thing at all.

AB: Mmm. Are you at a point where you're continuing to see a therapist? I know you mentioned a therapist last year.

NM: No. The thing is the therapist was from the university. The university has some resources, for therapy, but the thing is they only have two therapists for the whole university, and that person can't be your regular therapist. It’s someone you can go to if you're having problems, and they can refer you to someone.

My plan was to actually look for a regular therapist, because I think everyone needs [it]. I think therapy’s great.

AB: Yes! Absolutely.

NM: And I definitely do want to go to therapy as a more regular thing, like once every month or two months, just to talk through stuff. But one thing is, I think, being a Black African woman finding a therapist who I would really gel with, it's going to be a challenge—not to say that a white therapist wouldn't be okay. Even the therapists I talked to last year were brilliant, but I know that finding the right therapist can be a journey in itself. And it's also really expensive; geez!

AB: I know!

NM: My goodness, it's so expensive! And to be fair, I’m actually in a position where I can afford it, but it's like 100 euros for a consult—it’s a lot! It's something I do actually need to just do because it's something you can keep pushing off and pushing away, but I think it's so important. Last year, I got to a point where I was so bad that I was having panic attacks, right? I recognize that it's something that I need to do, to work through all these different things that I’ve probably been ignoring forever, basically.

Stuff like meditation, journaling, and even with {THE AND}... that's why I bought the deck: the ‘Self’ one. I think it's helped for me to unpack for myself, what's going on with me, you know?

That’s definitely the pain I’d like to heal. I've got a lot of baggage, trauma, childhood stuff that I never acknowledged even to anyone. Maybe to people I dated, or even friends, just telling them in passing, ‘Oh, this happened; that happened,’ but more like a story. Not how I felt about it, you know? I always put my feelings in the backburner, and I’ve done that, in general, as a person. I put my feelings to the side, because I guess that was my coping mechanism. But it is not necessarily healthy so.

AB: Mmmn. If you do feel safe with me, and if you do want to do that exploration, I am here. You can reach out to me to help you through that journey. I’m obviously not a clinical psychologist; I didn’t do my PhD in it, but just from the friend perspective, I’m here.

NM: And you're just a good listener. That I’ve observed about you already. And to be quite frank, I think one thing I’ve realized for myself and for most people is most people don't want other people to solve their problems—they just want to feel heard.

AB: Yes! Exactly.

NM: Too many people want to have a solution to other people's problems. First of all, most of the time, your solution is not the right solution, because there's always so much context that maybe the person isn't even completely explaining. Some people also struggle with communicating how they feel very eloquently. People just want to feel heard.

AB: Mhmm. It’s really such a blessing to have been able to spend this time with you, to learn about you, to kind of learn about myself as well, and I hope that we can have this conversation again sometime. As we continue to grow, I think these answers might change as well.

NM: Absolutely. I mean, I’m just throwing this into the universe, but I would love to do this again. All the prompts were kind of on your end, so I’d love to do this again and come up with new prompts in the near future, because I love this. This is just so great.

AB: I would love for this to become a more regular thing. We'll see what the audience thinks, if they like this flow, this back and forth. I enjoy it tremendously, but I don't know if people are going to get sick of hearing my voice. I like to put the spotlight on other people, more often than not.

NM: No, but I think it's great. I think people will appreciate hearing about you, because I think that's always the thing—whenever you’re on a show where you're interviewing people, it becomes, of course, more about the guests than you, which is fine, but you also have a story that people want to hear.

Also, I wanted to say this from the very beginning, and I’m sure you've heard this a million times, but you have the most beautiful voice, girl! Your voice is like butter; it’s so damn smooth! When you were reading the intro in the beginning, I was just like, ‘Yes, please read me a bedtime story, Asma.’ Your voices was made to be out in the masses.

AB: (Laughter) Thank you!

NM: I just had to end on that note.

AB: I've heard the sentiment; I've never heard that worded like that! (Laughter)

NM: (Laughter)

AB: I will forever be grateful for that! You know what's funny though? This will be the last thing that I say... I used to think my voice was boring, in fact, not because I thought that myself but because people told me that it was. I used to think that when people said that my voice can put them to sleep, that they were saying that it's so dull that it can put them to sleep. Now, I realize that it's calming, I guess calming enough that people feel happy? It’s such a strange thing!

NM: It’s lovely. I really like your voice. It's not boring at all. It's very calming, soothing, easy to listen to. When you're just talking and telling stories, I was like, ‘Yes, tell me things.’

AB: Thank you! I appreciate that so much. This has been too much fun; honestly, we could go on for hours and hours.

NM: Yes, we could.

Her Royal Science jingle


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