14-year-old Joburg girl to study medicine next year and has already completed a Harvard course

  • 14-year-old Karabo Matlali is a senior in high school with her sights firmly set on a career in medicine.
  • She first made the news at the age of 10, showing off her incredible knowledge and skill in the world of coding and robotics.
  • The teen, who is completing her school through Arizona State University, has spoken at the Microsoft Business Application conference and completed an introductory computer science course at Harvard.
  • Karabo plans to move to the UK next year to study medicine, with Cambridge University and the University of Oxford at the top of her list.

Karabo Matlali is a senior in high school with her sights firmly set on medical school next year. Oh, I should probably mention, she’s only 14!

Spirits are high as I chat to Karabo and her mom, Lindiwe Matlali, via Zoom. With camera’s blacked out, my senses are leaning in closely to their voices. It’s a conversation filled with laughter, but also a lot of “oohs and aahs” from my side.

Why wouldn’t I be filled with wonder? I’m in the presence of a child genius, I tell myself. My mind automatically draws me to a character from one of my favourite sitcoms – The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper. Again, joy breaks out as I make the confession.

“You should see her face right now because we call her Sheldon,” Lindiwe laughs.

“She’s got the mannerisms, because you’ll be sitting there eating an apple and she’ll be like, ‘Fun fact about apples’.”

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Karabo Matlali

Lindiwe and Karabo.

Karabo is a girl of few words – shy and reserved, yet quietly confident. I smile as she calls maths her favourite subject. “To be honest, it’s ironically the most simple subject,” she continues.

Her report card is proof of her genius and her love of learning, recently scoring 98% in an algebra test.

A senior at Arizona State University’s high school, Karabo does all her learning online. With a nine-hour difference between South Africa and Arizona, her afternoons are spent prepping for class, which normally begins around 18:00 and can sometimes run into the early morning hours.

“She’s very disciplined,” Lindiwe says about her daughter, telling me that Karabo is great at managing her time.

Karabo first made the news in 2018, at the age of 10, for her incredible coding abilities and knowledge in the world of robotics. In the same year, she would go on to speak at the Microsoft Business Application conference in Atlanta, USA.

Her knowledge and skill in the field also led her to complete an introduction to computer science course at Harvard University, which she aced.

“My husband, who is an engineer, he was like, I’m struggling and Karabo is just cruising with this,” Lindiwe says about the programme.

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The Matlali family are based in Midrand, Johannesburg. With her husband by her side, Lindiwe says their goal was to give their three children the life they never had.

“I grew up as an orphan, and I’ve always wanted to give my kids the best. So when you see that, actually we could do that, we could give her the best education and give her a better chance than we had, it’s really a great feeling.”

With all of her children involved in her coding school from a young age, Lindiwe has seen the difference the programme has made in their lives.

“They started coding very early in life, and there are skills that they learn from there like logical thinking and critical thinking, and I started getting them to do a lot of things that were ahead of their time.”

Karabo Matlali

Karabo with her dad, Malia.

The Matlali kids were also encouraged to read at university level through their family book club.

“We don’t read typical novels, we always read business books. One of the books we read was The Prosperity Paradoxby the Christensen Institute,” Lindiwe tells me.

The mom of three says exposure to such content at a young age makes a big difference. But what’s just as important is getting involved as a parent.

“I believe that our children perform based on what we do for them; how we support them.”

It’s all about finding the time, says Lindiwe, and making the learning process fun by allowing it to be a family activity, in the same way you would plan excursions.

Karabo Matlali

The Matlali kids. From left to right: Siyabonga, 19, Karabo, 14, Tebello, 11.

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As she wraps up her senior year, Karabo has her sights set on medical schools in the UK. She names Oxford and Cambridge as two of her top choices.

“With the medical school, it’s something I’ve always been interested in,” says the 14-year-old.

As for which field of medicine she’s leaning towards, she’s hasn’t quite narrowed it down yet. “I’m thinking maybe a surgeon, maybe a neurosurgeon, but I’m not a 100% sure on that.”

Lindiwe admits she was surprised at her daughter’s decision to pursue medicine, assuming that Karabo’s exposure to the tech world would have led her to a job in the computer science field. That said, the proud mom is filled with joy at the thought of her child heading into the medical field.

“[At first] we were worried, thinking she’ll be going into medicine, she’ll be turning 15 and then she’ll be somewhere in the UK. And [then] a big part of me was like, ‘You know what? I’m actually not even worried.’ Because of the way she is, I know that she will be fine.”

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