Thembi is currently engaged in a practice-based PhD at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, under the supervision of Associate Professor Keely Macarow and Dr Darrin Verhagen, with consultation from Associate Professor Philip Samartzis.
Titled "A Dense Mass of Indecipherable Fear: The Experiential (Non)Narration of Trauma and Madness ​through Acousmatic Sound", their research investigates ways to embody the idea of a first-person madness narrative within electroacoustic composition and sound art installation. A first-person madness narrative is any text that in some way describes a person's lived experience with mental illness or significant emotional/psychological distress, and often reflects upon their interaction with the mental health system. Their work draws on these published texts as well as her own lived experiences with depression, anxiety and chronic illness.
In developing this project, Thembi  was influenced by the book Agnes's Jacket: A Psychologist's Search for the Meaning of Madness written by professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Gail A. Hornstein. This book examines the psychiatric survivor and consumer advocacy movements in mental healthcare, illustrating the vast difference in the way the medical profession understands and treats mental illness, and the needs, opinions, and experiences of the people using these services. Through their research, Thembi aims to find creative ways to conceptualise and communicate about such first-hand experiences, highlighting the value of experiential approaches to understanding, researching, and communicating about this topic.
The flexile nature of perception, and its role in mental illness and distress, is a key focus of the research inquiry—how perception is malleable and easily influenced yet so powerful as to determine all actions, emotions, and desires. This is investigated through the concept of 'perceptual collapse', which was drawn from a talk entitled Why We Choose Suicide by mental health advocate Mark Henick. In this talk Henick describes his depression and multiple suicide attempts, placing them within the framework of perception. He explains how our perception expands and contracts in response to our physical makeup (biology), the state of our mind (psychology), and the environment around us (society), illustrating how everyone's perception narrows from time to time. He asks us to imagine remaining "stuck there in that dark, narrow place", stating, "that’s what it can be like to live with a mental illness."
Practical research involves experimentations with sampling, musique concrète, acousmatic sound, text, and multi-speaker listening environments, reflecting on their interactions with emotions, perception, and construction of narrative meaning.
Key reference texts and organisations include:
Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Music in Theory and Practice, Brian Kane, Oxford University Press
Spaces Speak, are you Listening?: Experiencing Aural Architecture, Barry Blesser & Linda Ruth-Salter, MIT Press
In Search of a Concrete Music, Pierre Schaeffer (translated by John Dack & Christine North), UC Press
Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds, Jean-Francois Augoyard & Henri Torgue, MQU Press
Whose Account Matters? Gail A. Hornstein, Feminism & Psychology
Thinking About Suicide, David Webb, PCCS Books
Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen