As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was five, a potter, actually making ceramics. Then I tried it and the clay went flying. Then when I was eight, a writer.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
Having the opportunity and resources to write a creative writing thesis during my senior year was transformative and essential on my path to become a writer.
You currently serve as the Director of Commercialization at Praxis Spinal Cord Institute. What does your job entail? What do you enjoy most about this position? How did your liberal arts and sciences education prepare you for your position?
My job is working in the complex healthcare system to translate urgent, life changing solutions for people with spinal cord injury into implementation. I love learning about innovation and tracking some of the progress we’ve made in short stints. It’s amazing to be a “catalyst” to support genius innovators and support better care for people living with disabilities.
A liberal arts education prepares you to think in a complex, system-changing way that is essential in healthcare and other “monster problems.” People with liberal arts backgrounds are able to incorporate this complexity and understand the problems much more quickly and with more nuance than maybe someone who didn’t receive that training.
Liberal arts education also prepares you to go to the root source of information, not just rely on textbooks. This background in research and first principles questioning means I can dip into scientific papers to verify the source of certain assumptions and feel comfortable doing it.
In addition to working with the Praxis Spinal Cord Institute, you are also an author. Your debut novel, When Morning Comes, is a young adult work following four people living in Johannesburg during apartheid. How did you become interested in writing, and how have you balanced this creative professional pursuit along with your work in the health care sector?
I became interested in writing around eight when I started wanting different endings of stories, or extensions of stories that didn’t exist. The natural progression was wanting stories that didn’t exist yet. I’ve never been great at short stories, I like the room and entire worlds of novels.
As for balance – I'm not sure it fully exists anywhere. It's about making tradeoffs and choices each bit of the journey and resting when you need to. It’s a constant negotiation with yourself, more of an active verb, a balancing act, than having achieved “balance” as a static thing.
What role has your liberal arts education played in the development of your career? Why do you think a well-rounded arts and sciences education are important in today’s society?
We are dealing with complex intersecting crises. Climate change has partially occurred by taking over lands from indigenous people who stewarded their land more sustainability, for aims other than profits. If used correctly, a liberal arts education allows us to perceive glimmers of this complexity and to address these problems in the intersectional way they need to be addressed.
Phi Beta Kappa’s motto is “the love of learning is the guide of life,” and we are dedicated to life-long learning. What do you want to learn next?
I started singing lessons in the pandemic even though I had difficulty holding a tune. I want to ride a bike on the road. I want to learn more and more about the best solutions to address climate change and emissions in our cities, region, the world, so I can help support this shift in my small way.
What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?
When I was debating to go overseas for college (from South Africa) and all the financial implications it would take, and compared that to most of my cohort doing engineering and medical degrees, my father encouraged me take a plunge into the liberal arts. He told me that no one achieves or learns anything new by taking a path other people are treading. It's in treading a different path that you can show what you’re made of.
I was concerned, as an international student, about my job prospects after college. Would I be able to get a job that paid my bills? I didn’t come with as much financial security as many other college applicants. That worry is real, and increasingly so with college debt in the United States ballooning. My dad told me to take that risk, but also ensure a well-rounded curriculum to keep my options open.
We don’t like to always think about being pragmatic as an artist, a writer, and doing a degree to keep my options open, but I have to admit, I took economics purely for that reason—and over time I really came to appreciate it and the lens it gave on the world. It also gave me my first job. Taking calculated risks and keeping options open ensured I had a path going forward to build maybe a slightly unconventional, but very meaningful career.
What book(s) are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend?
I’m enjoying Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark
. Solnit’s quotes around hope in this time, like many other times, have helped open up ways of viewing hope and what it means to strive for a better, more just future. I particuarly like the quote, “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal... To hope is to give yourself to the future - and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
I also really love using the Project Drawdown book as a reference as I equip myself on the best solutions and mindsets when facing climate change. I highly recommend Project Drawdown in its easy to understand, actionable insights as we meet the tight window in addressing the climate crises, together.