An extended version of this article originally appeared on w24.co.za. This version appeared in the August 2018 Edition of the SDG Bulletin South Africa. The SDG Bulletin South Africa is a collaborative product of the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, the United Nations in South Africa and the South African SDG Hub.
It’s August in South Africa, which means a month of celebrating women and all that we are capable of. There are plenty of accomplished young women launching successful careers in male dominated STEM fields, many of them doing so while navigating significant financial obstacles, or raising children, and often lacking professional support. In this article we’re profiling five young female South African scientists making their mark, and five established female role models.
5 young female scientists making their mark
Zimkhitha is the first student to graduate with a Master’s Degree in Animal Science (UFH) cum laude from the University of Fort Hare. She is now a PhD candidate in the department of Livestock and Pasture Science at the same university. The 26-year-old was always attracted to the sciences, and was motivated to pursue this career by her school teachers, despite suffering a mild stroke as a teenager.
She was one of only six female South African young scientists nominated by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) to attend the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in July. The Lindau Nobel Laureate programme provides young scientists with a unique opportunity to meet and interact with Nobel Laureates.
Senamile, a nuclear physics graduate of the University of the Western Cape, is currently pursuing a PhD in nuclear physics at the Canadian University of Triumf. She is also the Founder and Chairperson of Women in Science and Engineering in Africa (“Wise Africa”). The organisation serves to “promote leadership and role models for young people wishing to enter the fields of science and technology”.
To date, a career highlight for Masango is when in 2017 she joined a group at the University of the Western Cape, led by Professor Nico Orce, to conduct experiments at CERN, in Switzerland. She was the only female in the group put together to investigate the isotope selenium 70 at CERN’s Isolde facility.
“This was a very special experiment because CERN credited our experiment as a first African led experiment at CERN,” the 31-year-old scientist told us.
Of her time at the world renowned scientific facility, she told reporters “It’s every scientist’s dream to come to facilities like this” adding that there are “only a few women doing physics in South Africa, and you will hardly find any black physicists. We’re making history!”
Her advice for young African women considering a career in the sciences is to “have a good foundation, a willing heart to learn and be hard working.” She told us that science is not easy, and women don’t have support structures: “We need mentors and role models, as well as patience, and to focus on the results.”
Shireen, a student at the University of the Western Cape, is pursuing her PhD in “the theoretical interpretation of the functional composition of the brain’s protective barrier properties” within the context of substance abuse. She is motivated by the prevalence of drug use in her home town of Manenberg in the Western Cape, and hopes her research will one day make a meaningful contribution to addiction treatments.
The 29-year-old was also recently named among the world’s top young scientists when she was selected to attend the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany, one of the most prestigious science conferences in the world.
Mentor has also recently received a Fullbright Scholarship from the University of Missouri in the USA.
Edith is a PhD student in the School for Physiology, Nutrition and Consumer Sciences department at the North-West University. Her research looks into the “demographic, cardiovascular and metabolic health transition of a South African cohort living with HIV”. She was also chosen to participate in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings held in Germany in July.
The 27-year-old is also proud of the opportunity to mentor young scientists from primary and secondary school; assisting them with conducting and writing scientific research projects for scientific competitions. This is an opportunity she accessed through the ESKOM Expo for Young Scientists. She says women need role models, and seminars to talk about the challenges they face and how to overcome them.
She says that in her experience, women forget their dreams due to lack of support, as they often have to multitask being a mother and wife. “Women need support, to let them know that it is possible to study further even if you are a mother or wife. “I believe that part-time studies would be beneficial in such cases’” she says.
Blessing is a PhD student working with the Hypertension in Africa Research Team (HART) at the North-West University, where she is “investigating the role of leptin on various cardiovascular indices”. In July she attended the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings held in Germany,
She says one of her biggest challenges was having little or no opportunity to fulfil some of her ambitions, mostly tutoring.
Having overcome her challenges, she now visits disadvantaged schools to stimulate students’ interest in science. She also visits rural communities to create awareness on hypertension and cardiovascular disease development among rural dwellers.
Her advice for aspiring scientists is to “pursue your dreams, and keep on persisting. Do not be discouraged, because one day you will eventually smile at your success.”
Three inspiring women in science
Professor Mmantsae Moche Diale
Mmantsae is an associate professor in the department of physics at the University of Pretoria, is searching for a way of creating a solar cell that can harness all of the sun’s electromagnetic radiation, one that can power the world with cheap and clean energy.
She was recently awarded a South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI) chair in Clean and Green Energy by the National Research Foundation, and won a 2018 Capacity Development Award from the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF).
Professor Keolebogile Shirley Motaung
Keolebogile is Assistant Dean for Postgraduate Studies, Research, Innovation and Engagement, of the Faculty of Science at the Tshwane University of Technology. Her area of research is in using plants from a traditional healer based in Limpopo to create an affordable ointment, and plant-based morphogenetic factor implants.
She says that currently “the role of medicinal plants in tissue engineering constructs remains unexplored and it is so important that we study this. This will allow us to identify even further alternative treatment opportunities for fracture healing, bone repair, cartilage regeneration and osteoarthritis.”
Keolebogile has received several awards for her efforts in this field, including being recognised as The Most Innovative Woman of the Year in Gauteng at the Women of Excellence Awards ceremony, and winning a Research for Innovation Award – Corporate by the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) in 2018.
Professor Nancy Phaswana-Mafuya
Nancy is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation at North-West University, as well as an Honorary Professor at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. She is one of the few qualified female black epidemiologists, globally, and has spent much of her career conducting epidemiological studies on HIV and chronic non-communicable diseases.
She also serves as the Research Director for the Human Sciences Research Council’s first ever nationally representative epidemiological survey on ageing and health in South Africa. In 2017 she won a Data for Research award at the NSTF-South32 Awards.
She says she aims to “produce high quality epidemiological research for the betterment of my society and to continue to serve as a role model to aspiring scientists, especially women scientists from disadvantaged backgrounds like me”.