National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Rachel Meiring wants to specialise in neurosurgery to help those who suffered in the same way as her aunt.

Rachel is studying medicine at the University of Cape Town (UCT). She matriculated at the Rhenish Girls’ High School in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape.

“You are so much more than a number. Do not become disillusioned with yourself; be proud of everything that you have accomplished .”

Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you? What inspires you?

“Who am I?” is a difficult question to answer when I’m not too sure of it myself. I know aspects of myself. I’m hard working and self-disciplined. I’ve accomplished many things: I won the Investec Out-of-the-Ordinary award, attended the provincial awards, was a top achiever at my school and so many more silly, insignificant things. I’m interested in sciences and mathematics. Horror is my favourite movie genre. I quite enjoy puzzle solving and strategy games, such as Catan. I am particularly good at card games. I sing quite poorly, and I have two left feet. I enjoy being social, although I can be quite shy when meeting people. My friends are dear to me and my little sister, Julie, is my favourite person in the whole wide world.

I am me. Every facet of me is different from every facet of the next person. I am Rachel Meiring. I’m also 18. If I were to answer the question of “Who am I?” at this age, it’d be like trying to teach String Theory to a 6-year-old as someone who has never heard of String Theory in their lives.

The Oxford Dictionary defines inspire as: “fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.” I am inspired by many things. I am inspired by the thought of being able to make a difference in people’s lives. Helping people makes me rather happy, which is why I decided to tutor for free throughout the last six years. Seeing people understand concepts and start to enjoy them inspires me to teach more. I’m inspired by the complexities of human biology – the anatomy, physiology and biochemistry of it all. I’m inspired by my unwillingness to be stagnant. I think inspiration is driven from many things – our pasts, opinions and fears. I’m thankful that I’m able to make use of that inspiration and hone my natural talents, so that one day I can achieve my goals – the biggest one being leaving a positive mark on the lives of those around me.

Why did you choose the course you are studying?

In all honesty, my original motivations for choosing my course may not have been the highest moral reason: It often feels as though no amount of information can satiate me; once I understand a concept, I’m bored. The medical field is ever evolving – I cannot grow bored. Science is a field where discoveries are constantly made. Medicinal science, working with patients, I mean, would give me a new problem every single day: a patient and their ailment. Allopathic, or modern, medicine is an area of expertise that we know both nothing and everything about. Nothing in the sense that we still have so much to discover, yet everything because we know enough to satisfy the majority of the human population. I always had a rather clinical, detached motivation to study this course. It was a selfish decision: so that I could feed my curiosity.

Or at least until my aunt was diagnosed with brain cancer which metastasized from a melanoma. For her last surgery, she only had a 15% chance of survival. She survived. Then she passed. Out of the blue. My grandmother mourned, and has been mourning, for years.

Then my father was diagnosed. Then my mother.

My world came crashing down. I felt helpless. My family was falling victim to such a pathetic disease – one that originated from puny cells which bore a statistically admissible mistake. I did not pray, I wept. I didn’t have the energy to praise a higher power which my parents did not raise me to believe in. All I could do was hope the usually overworked, understaffed, burnt-out health professionals would care enough to put all they had into my parents’ survival. After all, they would just be a number to them.

It turns out they weren’t just a number. The doctors gave it their all. The surgeons changed the world for me – changed my world. How could I not change my mindset regarding my degree?

How could I not want to change the world of those around me? I’ve always liked helping people ─ I had been tutoring since I was 12 without any monetary incentive and I had always stood up for those around me. It was like something inside me just clicked: I would not survive being a doctor if my patients were numbers to me. My patients will be people, with stories just like mine. With stories that have worse endings than mine. With stories whose endings I can help mould into something better.

I have a chance to help people in a way no one else can: by changing their world. By holding together families. By saving lives. By bringing them peace.

Health is intertwined in all facets of our lives. If our health, or the health of those around us, is not taken care of, how can we be truly happy? We cannot grasp the concept of mortality and true loss (of people or our autonomy) until we’ve experienced it. In this field, I can better someone’s quality of life. I can prevent someone’s world from crashing down.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

In ten years’ time I could be in the first year of my Masters of Medicine degree, studying to become a neurosurgeon to help those who suffered in the same way my aunt did. Instead, I’ll be in my last internship year. I plan to study an intercalated MBChB degree which will extend the duration of my degree by one year, but I’ll have a year of research to back me in the future. I will graduate my undergraduate degree with honours. In ten years’ time, I will be writing up my applications for UCT’s postgraduate medical specialisation courses – neurosurgery to be exact. I will be spending my days in a public hospital helping those who weren’t dealt a privileged enough hand to afford private healthcare.

I will be making a difference in the lives – no, rather: worlds – of those who cannot choose their healthcare. It will be an absolute honour and privilege to help mould the lives of those who have not been given the same chance at life that I have. Although I won’t have many tangible things to offer, I will have my skills which I can utilise to help those around me. UCT is training us to be what they call “Integrated Health Professionals”: doctors who are compassionate, knowledgeable, empathetic, reflective of their mistakes and successes and who uphold the rights of patients.

In 10 years, I want to be the prime example of an Integrated Health Professional, working as hard as I can (to the best of my ability) to help where help is truly needed: in public hospitals and amongst the less privileged. I know what it’s like to not have the resources you desire – to not live the life you deserve to live. My parents’ divorce left us in financial shambles. I have experienced the pitfalls of the public healthcare system: the understaffing, the lack of resources and the burn-out of healthcare professionals. Most people believe that you must fend for yourself in this cruel and cold world, and often that may be the case, but I refuse to only fight for myself when I could be fighting for so many more people.

Why do you enjoy science and maths?

When I was in grade 3, my teacher chose the top mathematics candidates in our class and told us to add a list of numbers together. It was one page back to front filled to the brim with digits. She told us not to rush and get it to her before anyone else did, but to rather take our time and make sure our answers were correct. She gave us two days. I spent two days after school manually summing numbers together. Calculators were prohibited (and I truly didn’t know how to use one at that age). I ate, breathed and slept numbers. I was determined to get it right. There was no incentive; I just wanted to achieve something which seemed insurmountable at the time.

And so, I worked. And worked. I counted and recounted until the due date arrived.

I handed in my work to my teacher, and she flipped to the last page of my work. “Korrek!” (Correct). That was the magic word. She waddled off to the principal and I got a golden sticker, something reserved only for extraordinary achievements in the school.

That was where my love for mathematics began. I couldn’t stop after that. Mathematics was all I ever thought about. It was the only thing at school that I cared about.

Mathematics evolved to Natural Sciences to Technology to Economics and Business Sciences to Accounting to Chemistry to Physics to Calculus.

The second coming of my love for mathematics and sciences arose in Grade 10. Rather than taking Advanced Maths, my school said we could take A levels. I chose to take A levels in Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics. I worked doing two syllabuses at once whilst still maintaining my social life. I had no teacher for Biology, so I had to study it on my own. Throughout my holidays and free time, I learnt – I just couldn’t get enough of constantly learning. Self-learning meant that I couldn’t, unlike for the Department of Basic Education (DBE) National Senior Certificate (NSC), just learn what teachers told me to learn. I had to understand, deeply, what was going on.

I was fascinated by the way macromolecules formed from these simple atoms. The way complex quaternary structures of proteins would have a perfectly shaped lock for the perfectly shaped molecular key to fit into. Everything about chemistry and its significance in the human body had a grip on me so strong it was like a fever dream when I was studying. I was so engulfed in the content that the world around me slid away. It was the same overwhelming feeling you get when you become engrossed in the world you read about in a fantasy novel, but when you close your textbook, the world remains. The content I was learning wasn’t fantasy, it was real. It was in my world. It was in my own body.

It challenged me, my thoughts, preconceived notions, myths and beliefs. The things I thought I knew about the natural world were disproven and built upon. Studying an MBChB degree, even in the first semester, has done the same thing so far. I finally feel satisfied.

I ended up achieving an A for my A2 Levels Biology and 100% for my A2 Levels Mathematics examination. Yet still, my proudest achievement is the summation of digits. How could I not be proud of the little girl who achieved so much?

Leaving mathematics behind in my degree was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, but for now I’m fulfilling my love for the natural sciences. I put my Mathematics journey on hold, but I am determined to learn more in the future.

Where did you complete your schooling? Tell us a bit about this school and your teachers.

I completed my matric at Rhenish Girls’ High School in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape province. I moved from Hoërskool Stellenbosch, a school which prides itself on being a place where students can discover themselves freely. Rhenish felt militaristic by comparison: the smallest disciplinary misstep would result in you having to visit a higher-up’s office. They wanted their students to excel, so they enforced homework being done, attending all classes, had strict rules for leaving class and even made sure you were listening in class – bathroom breaks and sleeping weren’t allowed. They hardly gave students a week to mourn after two of our peers committed suicide in 2021 and 2022. We had to get back to work.

I stood my ground. I questioned teachers, peers, disciplinarians, psychologists and my friends constantly. I was not going to become the typical Rhenish girl they wanted me to be: I was going to remain Rachel Meiring. I followed the rules closely enough that I wouldn’t get into serious trouble, but I needed them to see that the girl who they constantly complained about and thought less of, could achieve as well.

My mathematics teacher believed in me from my first until my last year in Rhenish. She cheered me on from the sidelines constantly. Although it was never as explicit as it was with other learners, I could feel that she was proud of me and my accomplishments. I am forever grateful for her constant kind and understanding treatment of me.

My teachers’ teaching skills were of the highest calibre, though. They were able to help students who were truly struggling to understand concepts and help them to excel. Rhenish should be grateful for the wonderful educational team it has compiled. All the teachers clearly had a love for their subjects and strived to help students achieve as well as they could, but unfortunately, they often forgot that there were things more important than marks and rigidity.

Why do you think some people have problems doing well in maths and science?

To understand Science and Mathematics, one needs a strong foundation. How could you build a skyscraper, without an understanding of concrete?

Learners often struggle with science and mathematics, because they don’t understand the core rules which shape these, such as addition, subtraction and equivalent fractions. Throughout my years helping people with mathematics, I saw that for them to understand how to tackle a large question, I needed to show them what to me was intuition. I constantly wrote out exponent and fraction rules or re-explained multiplication laws, such as the distributive property. I believe that mathematics and science are often the easiest subjects to excel in. Everyone has an ability to do well and those who don’t didn’t have teachers who cared enough to help explain to them in a way that they understood. Some people may have a better affinity for these subjects, but everyone has the ability to succeed.

Without mathematics, science cannot make sense. Mathematics equips you with a problem solving ability which sciences often require. Without it, your skyscraper built using mathematics and science will crumble.

What advice do you have for school learners who struggle with these subjects?

Go back to bare-bones-basic things you think you understand and try them again. If you’re in matric and you’re struggling with algebra, go back to a grade 8 algebra worksheet and work your way up from there. You could memorise how to do certain questions, but once they become slightly more complex, you’ll often find yourself struggling to figure out what to do – which definitely is not feasible.

Repair your confidence. I know how a poor mark can shatter your confidence but use it as motivation, you know you can do better. If you’ve consistently achieved poor marks, figure out which sections you struggle with and decipher what the basis of these sections is. Are they based on coordinates, algebra, basic geometry or functions? Inequalities can be easily solved using functions. Calculus can be easily mastered if you understand the concept of gradients and area. Euclidean Circle Geometry can be made easier if you go back to basics, such as parallel lines and the properties of shapes.

Science is the same, if you do not understand the concept of current and resistance, how could you be expected to understand internal resistance and parallel branches in circuits? Sit and figure out the hills before you tackle the mountains.

Often, we make mistakes. We are human. Making silly mistakes, though, is not the difference between a pass and a fail, often they account for 10% or less of the mistakes in your paper. You can achieve if you believe you can. You can achieve if you put in the work. Fix your foundation so that your skyscraper can stand tall.

Any tips for learners in grades 11 and 12?


  • You are so much more than a number. Do not become disillusioned with yourself; be proud of everything that you have accomplished.
  • School is your golden ticket to a better life. If you have not been dealt a fair hand, know that working whenever you are able to and asking as many questions as possible in class to ensure you thoroughly understand a concept, will allow you to escape to a better life through tertiary education. Even if tertiary institutions don’t seem financially viable, they often have schemes which can help you to attend.
  • It’s unfortunate that this is often the only way to better one’s life, but play the game. We are all cogs in the educational machine. Do your part and you will be rewarded. Do more than what is expected of you constantly, and the machine will work in your favour.
  • Keep your promises to yourself. You said you were going to do all your homework today? Then do it, if your more imminent responsibilities permit. You said you’d achieve 80% for a test? Make sure you get as close to it as possible, if not above it!
  • But also give yourself some leeway. You must forgive yourself for your mistakes. We cannot kick ourselves when we’re down, or else we’ll never stand up again. If you set 100 small goals and achieve 80 of them, you’ve already done more than someone with one large goal.
  • Every single bit of work you do is a step in the right direction. High school is your chance to construct a bridge to a better life. Make the most of this opportunity. Do not let yourself get in the way of your future.
  • If you would not like to attend a tertiary institution, know that that is okay as well. That doesn’t mean that you should try less, though. Always give things your absolute best. You never know what path life is going to take you on, so having a solid foundation from high school will help you have something to fall back on.
  • You will never regret trying your best, only not trying at all.


What advice do you have for matriculants who have to apply for places in higher education institutions?


  • Your final exams will make or break you, they count 75% of your final mark. Revise, do past papers and make sure you understand concepts thoroughly. If you cannot manage to do this for all your subjects, look at the prospectus for your university to see which subjects are weighted as the most important and excel in those specific subjects.
  • Apply to as many tertiary institutions as possible, there is no guarantee you’ll be accepted if you apply to only one, so increasing your likelihood of getting accepted by applying to more is crucial.
  • If you don’t get accepted into your first choice course, that’s okay. You can always transfer in second year. Although it’s often difficult to transfer as a second year student, another alternative is to take a gap year and rewrite your final exams, which increases your likelihood of getting in (although this may only be applicable to the health sciences faculty).
  • Apply to as many bursaries as possible. If you get one, that’s less debt you need to go into. Bursaries and scholarships are also more reliable than a scheme like NSFAS. Even if your parents can afford to send you to university, lessening the financial burden on them through getting a scholarship or bursary won’t be harmful.
  • Stop comparing yourself and your marks to your classmates. Often you’ll be applying to different courses anyway. The only thing that matters is who the university wants in their class.
  • If you don’t get accepted for any course you applied for, go speak to the university. Often, they’ll have spots open in less popular courses which you can enrol in or they’ll ask you for a motivational letter to explain why you’d like to study your specific course.
  • Applying to university has so many more avenues than just excelling (although that does often make the process easier). You can attend a tertiary institution through many, many paths. I’m currently studying with people who have their masters, honours, matric certificate, undergraduate degrees and even people who worked for years. It is never too late to attend university. It’s never too late to achieve the goals you set for yourself.

Understanding excellence – what makes an achiever?

An achiever is not someone who does well on paper. An achiever is someone who works hard. I worked harder for the Afrikaans Home Language exam than any other subject and yet I only achieved 84% on my final report, this was 12% lower than my second lowest mark. I still think that I achieved. It may be lower than my previous marks for the subject, but I am still proud of it. I did the best I could considering the circumstances I found myself in.

An achiever does not need to have 100’s and 99’s for all subjects. An achiever just needs to do their utmost. If you’ve utilised your utter grit, tried your absolute best, and your best is a 70%, you are an achiever.

If you didn’t put in the work and did well, you are not an achiever. You are gifted. Lucky. If you do not strive for more, how could you be an achiever? You just accomplished your baseline results; you did not achieve.

Try, try, try and try again and you will achieve. You will achieve 80 out of the 100 goals you set for yourself, at least.

A message to South African youth in general?

We have been set back by our prior generations. We must remember that we are separate from them. We can still amount to so much. We face loadshedding, the aftermath of apartheid, corruption, regular financial and economic crises and an underfunded, under resourced school system. Of course we’re going to struggle, but this is also our normal.

We need to make the most of our situation. We need to realise that we are the next generation of doctors, members of parliament, lawyers, cleaners, teachers and so many other professions. We can learn from our parents’ and grandparents’ mistakes to make our SA a new, better SA.

It may sound generic, but I truly mean it. Millions of people working together will be far more effective than a million people working separately. The world is so much broader than your own perspective. We are all special and unique, but we are nothing in the bigger picture if we do things on our own. We can fix the mess we’re going to inherit.

We can accept each other. We must fight for other people when they’ve been kicked one too many times. Our country is a beautiful mismatch of colours, cultures and people. We are vuvuzelas and braaiing and rugby. We are every little quirk which amalgamated to make what we are today. Our country must still bloom, but we require everyone to work together in order to let this flower show its true colours.

If you had ONE opportunity to speak directly to a very influential person, who would you choose and what would you say to them?

Marié Fourie, a South African woman in a lesbian relationship with Cecelia Bonthuys. Their case was against the Minister of Home Affairs, because they wanted their marriage to be considered legitimate by the Department of Home Affairs. Marié’s constant battle against different departments to have her marriage to her wife recognised resulted in the legalisation of gay marriage in SA.

I would like to thank her for this. She was tenacious and fought for thousands of people in the country who couldn’t fight for themselves. Although she was constantly turned away, she opened doors for people like me and those around me to marry who we’d like to.

I feel like asking any questions would be too insignificant in comparison to what was achieved. I could ask what made her so unshakeable? Was she scared? Did she ever consider giving up? The thing is, she pushed and pushed and pushed and look now, a sacred act, marriage, is truly equal. Although discrimination remains in the social sphere, legally it has been rectified.

LGBTQIA+ rights must be fought for, just as racism must be fought against. SA has a long way to go, but the case of Marié against the Minister of Home Affairs truly made a significant difference in the lives of many.

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