From the U.S. National Institutes of Health to Stellenbosch University: African neuroethics researcher joins the Department of Psychiatry

On 1 October 2023, Dr. Olivia Matshabane, a neuroethics researcher, joined the SAMRC/SU Extramural Unit on the Genomics of Brain Disorders in the Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) at SU on permanent appointment. Dr Matshabane joins us from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH), National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in the US, where she recently completed a two-year fellowship within the Social and Behavioral Research Branch (SBRB) through the African Postdoctoral Training Initiative (APTI).


Dr. Matshabane hails from eNgqele, a village near the small town of Alice (eDikeni) in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Growing up, she says she was always fascinated by the brain and understanding how it relates to our feelings, emotions, memories, and behaviour. She also witnessed how people with neuropsychiatric conditions were stigmatized in society. To better understand the brain, behaviour, and perceptions in society, she pursued her studies in the field of psychology, where she completed her BA in Psychology at the University of the Western Cape, her honors and Master’s degrees in Psychology at SU, and her PhD in Medicine (Bioethics) at the University of Cape Town.


Dr. Matshabane’s specialised expertise is in neuroethics, which is an interdisciplinary field that studies the ethical, legal, societal, and cultural implications of neuroscience and related neurotechnologies. In Africa, there is sparse expertise in neuroethics in both research and teaching domains and she intends to contribute to enhancing neuroethics at SU and beyond, through efforts that acknowledge and address access, diversity, equity, and inclusion.


Specifically, Dr. Matshabane will be working in partnership with Prof. Soraya Seedat to advance neuroethics research in the department by enhancing efforts to integrate neuroethics into neuroscience research. She also hopes to work with SU colleagues at the Centre for Bioethics and Law, the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking, and the Department of Philosophy to establish interdisciplinary collaborative studies. Having her expertise in the department will also be instrumental in the expansion of the research scope and content of the recently established MSc in Neuroscience through the inclusion of neuroethics. At a broader level, she plans to bring together diverse stakeholders to co-create neuroethics engagement workshops for staff, students, and the public. Dr. Matshabane says she is overjoyed to be joining colleagues at the SAMRC/SU Genomics of Brain Disorders Unit, those in the Department of Psychiatry, and across SU. “The brain science being conducted in the unit and the department is really innovative and cutting-edge, so I am thrilled to be working alongside excellent researchers and also to have an opportunity to integrate neuroethics into various multidisciplinary-oriented projects. I also look forward to cross-institutional collaborations including colleagues at SU and my established networks and colleagues at other African institutions, the NIH, as well as other international institutions as we move towards ensuring more ethical neuroscience that benefits African people and communities.


Part of SU’s 2040 vision is to build “purposeful partnerships and inclusive networks”, as well as conduct “research for impact” in society. As an institution that aspires to be Africa’s leading research-intensive university, we are delighted to have Dr. Matshabane onboard and trust that her expertise will contribute to this mission.


Dr. Matshabane’s academic and professional background

She is a member of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC) Africa Ethics Working Group and the International Brain Initiative’s Cross-Cultural Neuroscience Working Group. She also serves in numerous roles in the International Neuroethics Society, including leadership of emerging scholars, and sits as a representative to the Board of Directors. She served in the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) Consortium as the Secretary and then Chair of the Fellows Committee and was a member of the Ethics and Community Engagement Committee. At the NIH she was a member of the Anti-racism Steering Committee and the Stigma Specific Interest Group. In 2021 and 2022 she participated as one of 15 international experts to serve on roundtable discussions held by the United Nations which aimed to share insights and expertise to inform short-term and long-term priorities and preferred outcomes for the United Nations around neurotechnologies.