Professor Shenuka Singh with her family and colleagues at her inaugural lecture.

Professor Shenuka Singh’s Inaugural Lecture

‘I am glad to present this lecture in front of my mother who instilled in me the value of investing in life-long education.’

These were the words of UKZN’s Professor Shenuka Singh, Full Professor in the Discipline of Dentistry, at her inaugural lecture.

Singh is also an appointed member of the National Health Research Ethics Council (NHREC) in South Africa (2020-2023) as well as NHREC Norms and Standards Committee Chair.

Titled: Turning the Moral Compass Towards Transformative Research Ethics: An Inflection Point for Humanized Pedagogy in Higher Education, Singh’s presentation highlighted the need for a paradigm shift in the understanding and thinking of research ethics and the need to contextualise research practices within an African context, while at the same time, looking at learning approaches in research ethics that recognise the role of interactive learning where diversity in student needs and experiences are explored within the learning context.

‘When we look at the obligations of the researcher, the focus appears to be on virtue ethics – that is character-based ethics,’ she said. ‘This means that a person who is honest, fair, and good should not be engaging in research misconduct, yet, we do know that sometimes good researchers with good characters and attributes engage in questionable research behaviour,’ she continued.

She said ethics is not first learned at university but rather cultivated and nurtured in the home environment. ‘Researchers’ attitudes and world views on research would be influenced by their social upbringing and shaped by cultural and religious belief systems. Thus, researchers, students, and supervisors come into the research environment with preconceived perceptions and attitudes that will ultimately impact on their research behaviours.’

Her study findings highlighted that researchers or technicians working with only the blood sample in the biobank might find it difficult to connect the sample back to the person who provided this material. ‘This disconnect can be amplified if the researcher/technician does not subscribe to the cultural or belief systems as that of the person who provided that biosample,’ she explained.

She said in her experience as an ethics reviewer and former chair of two research ethics committees, not only do students struggle to engage with research ethics, but research supervisors also do, which points to a deeper systemic issue of how research ethics is taught and sustained through undergraduate and postgraduate training programmes.

‘Thus, it is left up to the student to join the dots…that is to integrate this information,’ she said.

Singh has a Bachelor’s degree in Oral Health from the former University of Durban-Westville (now UKZN), followed by a Master’s in Dentistry and then the first PhD in the area of Dental Public Health from the University of the Western Cape. These postgraduate degrees were obtained while she was employed in the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health.

She was formally appointed as a full-time staff member in the Discipline of Dentistry at UKZN in November 2009 where she began as a lecturer. She was promoted to senior lecturer in 2014, Associate Professor in 2017, and full Professor in 2022. Her commitment to lifelong learning is reflected by the fact that she went on to obtain a Postgraduate Diploma in Health Research Ethics (cum laude) from Stellenbosch University and then a second PhD (Clinical and Health Research Ethics) also from Stellenbosch University in 2022. She is the academic leader for Teaching and Learning in the School of Health Sciences and a Deputy Chair of the Biomedical Research Ethics Committee at UKZN (2020-2023).

At a national level, Singh is an appointed member of the NHREC in South Africa (2020-2023) which is a ministerial appointment and she chairs the Norms and Standards Committee within NHREC. Her portfolio at this level involves the development and facilitation of national guidelines related to research ethics in the country. She is also a member of the Human Sciences Research Council’s Research Ethics Committee (2019 to date).

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Health Sciences, Professor Busi Ncama, and Dean and Head of the School of Health Sciences, Professor Percy Mashige, congratulated Singh on her great achievement.

Words: Nombuso Dlamini

Photograph: Supplied