Meet 5 of South Africa's successful black women in science - and they're under 35

Woman scientists need more recognition than they receive
Woman scientists need more recognition than they receive

It’s August in South Africa, which means a month of celebrating women and all that we are capable of. Despite the mis-led comments of one un-informed local CEO, 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. 

We spoke to Ndoni Mcunu, founder of Black Women in Science (BWIS), to find out what South African women who seek a career in the sciences can do to prepare themselves for success. 

Ndoni is also currently working towards her PhD at the Global Change Institute at Witwatersrand University, so she has first-hand experience of this. 

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The recent winner of the Gagasi FM Shero Award in the Science and Technology category told us that the “number one thing a young aspirational African woman can do to ensure a good start for a successful science based career” is to “first identify who you are, what you are good at and how you interpret failure.” 

“Throughout my academic journey I realised the lack of black women pursuing specialised sciences. This resulted in me lacking mentorship and advice in my academic and research career.”
Ndoni Mcunu

“These three points are so important because it is a tough industry and you need to have a tough skin” she explained. “You need to know who you are and how you can re-interpret failure for yourself, and not make failure define you.” 

Her favourite expression is “You are failing because you are trying, so keep trying”, and she is motivated by seeing the impact of her efforts. “When I overcome an obstacle, I have a whole new perspective of who I am and what I am capable of.” 

Ndoni says that, in her experience, financial support is the most common career obstacle a woman in the sciences faces in South Africa. A woman might receive a bursary to study but it may not be enough because of other responsibilities at home, she explains. 

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Another issue is a lack of female networking. “Women need more role models who they can identify with” she says. Young women need “role models who can share their challenges with younger scientist and provide advice on how to manage them.”  

Ndoni described a “leaking pipeline in the academia sector.” She elaborated that there is a great need for female professors and lecturers. “Throughout my academic journey I realised the lack of black women pursuing specialised sciences. This resulted in me lacking mentorship and advice in my academic and research career.”

Without strong family support and exposure, she says she would have lacked interest in pursuing a career in the sciences. 

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This is why she decided to establish Black Women in Science (BWIS). The BWIS Fellowship aims to deliver capacity development interventions that target young black women scientists and researchers. “I hope to change how we practice science in academic institutions and open more women to pursuing a career in science,” she says. 

She advises young female scientists to outside of their comfort zones. “Speak to those who are not in your industry and find a way to relate to them”, she motivates. “Science communication has been underplayed, but it is important for a young scientist as society is now built on communication and networking. Aim to be as relevant and applicable as possible” she advises.  

Meet some of the young black scientists making their mark in South Africa (they’re all under 35!)

Zimkhitha Soji, the first student to graduate with a Master's Degree in Animal Science (UFH) CUM LAUDE from the University of Fort Hare, 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. 

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There are “hardly any women doing physics in South Africa, and you will hardly find any black physicists. We’re making history!”
Senamile Masango

Senamile Masango, a nuclear physics graduate of the University of the Western Cape, is submitting her MSc in nuclear physics this October 2018 and she’s already analysing some of the data for her PhD, which was recently collected from an experiment carried out last July 2018 at the prestigious Canadian particle accelerator centre, TRIUMF, in Vancouver. 

Masango is also 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 July 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 large South African group - composed of 12 members from UWC and the University of Zululand - put together with collaborators at the University of York led by Prof David Jenkins, to investigate the nuclear shape of the exotic isotope selenium 70 at CERN's HIE-ISOLDE facility.
“This was a very special experiment because CERN credited our experiment as a first African led experiment proposed at CERN,” the 31-year-old scientist told us. “which, with the crucial long-standing effort of South African pioneer, Prof Krish Bharuth-Ram (DUT), helped opening the doors for any scientist in South Africa dreaming to lead Science at the most powerful laboratory ever built by humankind. Material Scientists Dr Hillary Masenda (Wits), together with Prof Deena Naidoo (Wits) and Prof Krish Bharuth-Ram (DUT), actually ran the first African-led experiment at CERN in May 2017.”

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 “hardly any 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.”

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“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’”
Edith Phalane

Shireen Mentor, 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 just received a Fullbright Scholarship from the University of Missouri in the USA. 

Edith Phalane is a PhD student in the School for Physiology, Nutrition and Consumer Sciences department at the North-West University. Her research is 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 she has to through the ESKOM EXPO for Young Scientists to mentor young scientists from primary and secondary school by assisting them with conducting and writing scientific research project for scientific competitions. She says women need role models, and seminars to talk about the challenges women face and how to overcome those challenges. 

She says that in her experience women forget their dreams due to lack of support, as they have often 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. 

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Blessing Ahiante 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. 

She overcame this challenge, she says, looking further afield and she now visits disadvantaged schools to stimulate students’ interest in science. She also visits rural communities to create awareness on hypertension and CVD 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.”

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Professor Mmantsae Moche Diale, 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). 

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Professor Keolebogile Shirley Motaung is assistant dean: 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.

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Professor Nancy Phaswana-Mafuya 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”.

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