Meet Kimberleigh Tommy, a palaeonathropologist focussing on functional morphology and the evolution of upright walking!

What is your scientific background?

I studied animal, plant and environmental sciences as an undergraduate at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa where I began exploring evolutionary theory and more specifically palaeontology. I then pursued a postgraduate degree in palaeontology at the University of Witwatersrand through the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI). I am currently a Masters candidate at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, with a focus in functional morphology as it relates to hominid evolution and the emergence of upright walking in our species.

How did you choose your field of study?

As a youngster, I was often caught creating my own weird and wonderful experiments (usually just making a mess in my mother’s kitchen) and that’s where the love of science was born and nurtured! (Sorry mom!) I have always had a fascination with Egypt and mummies and spent countless hours glued to the TV watching all sorts of documentaries. I think sometimes you don’t find your field of study, it finds you, and it’s only a matter of hearing the call and following it. I have always been fascinated with the human form, with our cultural development, our primate relatives and how it is we all come together to create a complete picture of our past. I pursued palaeontology because of my endless passion for understanding our place in the world around us, and in finding a shared common origin, to remind humanity that we are better together than we ever could be apart.

Kimberleigh giving a talk/ Kimberleigh Tommy

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you will make a difference?

I am currently working on the evolution of upright walking by examining loading stress in the internal (trabecular) bone structure of the ankle. This offers a unique opportunity to identify loading patterns across different living ape species and within our fossil ancestors in order to pinpoint when, why and how we started walking bipedally.

During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?

I have been fortunate enough to have a team of wonderful academic supervisors supporting me since the beginning of my postgraduate career. These are namely Prof. Kristian Carlson (Keck School of Medicine), Dr. Bernhard Zipfel (WITS University) and Dr. Job Kibii (National Museums of Kenya). My academic supervisors have been an endless source of motivation, laughter, and inspiration.

Do you come from an academic family? How does your family regard your career choice?

I am actually the first graduate in my generation! I do not come from an academic background which is why education is so dear to me. I actually come from a Roman Catholic family and attended a convent growing up. So you could say I’m the black sheep hahaha. My family has been supportive of all of my choices, encouraging me to pursue my dreams. The most wonderful part of my career so far has been to impart my knowledge with them, to learn to respect the opinions of others while engaging in discussion.

Kimberleigh during science communication at the FameLab CSIR Heats. Talking about the functional signals in the hip bones of babies learning to walk. (Not line dancing, although pretty close)/ Kimberleigh Tommy

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?

Being a post-Apartheid woman of colour in South Africa comes with its own unique set of challenges. The greatest obstacle I have faced was simply AFFORDING to pursue my passion as tertiary education is costly. I also found that another problem is a lack of knowledge regarding the sciences as a career. I am one of a handful of young women of colour pursuing the palaeosciences and related fields within the university, although I am hoping for a shift in the thinking that will encourage more girls to explore the origins sciences. Our fossil and cultural heritage as Africans is so unique and vast, it would be a shame if young African talent was not harnessed and nurtured to be at the forefront of research within this field. I am an African woman studying African origins, it should be the norm.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

I think that there are many changes that need to be implemented within the scientific system to make the sciences more appealing to young females. We are fortunate to be alive in the time where women have found a voice that was so often silenced. It is important to the advancement of science that women be entrusted with positions of power, that we are able to sit in a room with peers without feeling afraid, judged or less respected. It is important that we conduct open dialogue, regarding the issues that we face on a daily basis, including harassment within the workforce. There are minds of many brilliant scientists trapped in the body of women who choose to leave the field because of these negative experiences. The field of science needs to be made a safe space for women to grow as researchers.


You can contact Kimberleigh at, or follow her on Twitter!