The SCI­ENCE OF mov­ing for­ward

Sci­en­tist Ndoni Mcunu plans on get­ting more women into the lab – and South Africa on the map.

Fairlady - - PROFILE - By Shireen Fisher

'Nine years into my re­search and aca­demic ca­reer, one of the most com­mon ques­tions I get from fam­ily and friends is: “Will she ever fin­ish study­ing?”’ says Ndoni Mcunu. She’s one of very few black women in South Africa who not only chose to go into the sciences but who has fur­ther de­vel­oped her ex­per­tise.

Cur­rently work­ing to­wards her PhD on cli­mate change and food pro­duc­tion at Wits Global Change In­sti­tute, Ndoni’s con­cern about the lack of black women in sci­ence prompted her and a friend, Man­tombi Ngoloyi (her­self pur­su­ing a PhD at Toulouse Univer­sity), to es­tab­lish the non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion Black Women in Sci­ence (BWIS) in 2016 in part­ner­ship with the Depart­ment of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy.

‘I had the ad­van­tage of hav­ing strong role mod­els and ex­tra lessons,’ Ndoni says. ‘But what if you don’t have that? My par­ents in­tro­duced me to things many peo­ple wouldn’t have been ex­posed to at that age.’

Ndoni’s fam­ily has a strong bent to­wards the sciences: her fa­ther is a com­puter sci­en­tist and her mother, now a cam­pus man­ager, was a teacher; her un­cle is a med­i­cal doc­tor, her aunt a math­e­mat­i­cal sci­en­tist and her grand­fa­ther had a Bach­e­lor’s de­gree in sci­ence. The only girl in her nu­clear fam­ily, en­cour­age­ment also came from her broth­ers.

‘They tried to in­still in me that I could do any­thing I wanted to, on my own. They’d al­ways tell me, “It’s not a man’s world – it’s YOUR world. You can ac­tu­ally make a change.”’

In­ter­est­ingly, says Ndoni, she still strug­gled with maths and sci­ence in high school.

‘I man­aged be­cause I had ex­tra tu­ition, but that re­quires money and sup­port. That’s why I be­lieve so strongly in be­com­ing a sup­port sys­tem for peo­ple who don’t have one. I have the ca­pac­ity to give back.’

Lack of sup­port is just one rea­son for so few black women en­ter­ing sci­en­tific fields. Regis­tra­tion fig­ures show that while many en­roll in the sci­ence fac­ul­ties, most don’t pur­sue post­grad­u­ate stud­ies. The re­sult is fewer black fe­male lec­tur­ers, and even fewer black fe­male pro­fes­sors, which ul­ti­mately means fewer black fe­male role mod­els. (UCT just re­cently ap­pointed its first black fe­male vice chan­cel­lor, math­e­mati­cian Mamokgethi Phak­eng).

‘We need more black fe­male voices,’ says Ndoni. ‘Chil­dren need role mod­els. As I was mov­ing up the

aca­demic lad­der, I re­alised it was be­com­ing more iso­lat­ing. When you get to mas­ter’s level, you’re often the only per­son who un­der­stands your re­search – you and your aca­demic su­per­vi­sor,’ Ndoni says.

‘Some­times you sub­mit an ar­ti­cle and when it comes back, all you see are the cor­rec­tions in red. It can make you think you’re not good enough, or it can mo­ti­vate you to say: “I CAN do these cor­rec­tions and I CAN get this cer­tifi­cate for my­self.” Once you con­quer that, you look at life in a dif­fer­ent way.’

Here’s where Ndoni and Man­tombi see the role of BWIS: en­gag­ing some of their 150 mem­bers in men­tor­ship pro­grammes and sup­port net­works for black fe­male univer­sity stu­dents as well as schoolchil­dren – par­tic­u­larly ru­ral learn­ers – en­cour­ag­ing them in their study of STEM sub­jects (sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics). At present, about 72 BWIS mem­bers in KZN are men­tor­ing stu­dents in ru­ral ar­eas to­wards de­grees in STEM sub­jects.

Ndoni is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties be­cause the dis­ad­van­tages women face there are often more acute. It’s also where the fo­cus of her PhD is rel­e­vant – she’s look­ing at how meth­ods such as di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion of the agri­cul­tural land­scape af­fect the se­cu­rity of food pro­duc­tion in a changing cli­mate for African farm­ers. Her re­search forms part of De­liv­er­ing Food Se­cu­rity on Lim­ited Land, a project spon­sored by the Bel­mont Forum and the FACCE-JPI Ini­tia­tive.

‘In ru­ral and dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties, fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, fi­nan­cial con­straints, gen­der stereo­types and mis­con­cep­tions all play a role in dis­cour­ag­ing fe­male stu­dents,’ she says. ‘What if I were a stu­dent with five sib­lings and needed a salary to sup­port them? I’m strug­gling to sur­vive on my own; I can’t imag­ine how some­one who has to feed a fam­ily copes.’

As a Zulu woman, Ndoni says that if she were to marry into a tra­di­tional African fam­ily, for ex­am­ple, her in-laws might not un­der­stand the amount of time her stud­ies de­mand. This is an at­ti­tude that more vis­i­ble role mod­els would help to change.

‘It’s about in­come, it’s about re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and it’s about cul­ture. We need to be very sen­si­tive to our coun­try’s unique his­tory and devel­op­ment. Re­search and fund­ing streams need to be re­designed to ac­com­mo­date such com­plex­i­ties. It’s not the same as in the UK, where you’re paid more money to do a PhD. Here you often strug­gle to get fund­ing, and after­wards you strug­gle to get a job.’

STEM de­grees are also more ex­pen­sive be­cause of the lab and prac­ti­cal ses­sions re­quired. It’s a long road ahead, but Ndoni sees it as her duty to give back.

Stylish and slight, Ndoni is warm, out­go­ing and laughs eas­ily. She would be strik­ing any­where, but seems par­tic­u­larly lu­mi­nous in the fields in which we pho­to­graph her. What made her choose this area of the sciences when she could just as eas­ily have gone into medicine and a lu­cra­tive pri­vate prac­tice? She laughs – she nearly did choose medicine, she says, but felt drawn to the bi­o­log­i­cal sciences be­cause she was in­ter­ested in what the en­vi­ron­ment could do for peo­ple. Ndoni is de­ter­mined to see South Africa suc­ceed, and part of that in­volves look­ing at what we need in this coun­try to get where we want to be. ‘We still have grad­u­ates with a sci­ence de­gree and no jobs, ’ she says.

Her ad­vice? ‘Learn about the Na­tional Devel­op­ment Plan and know where you’re placed in the mar­ket. Let go of fear and make an ef­fort to de­velop a re­la­tion­ship with peo­ple you think are role mod­els. Es­tab­lish the area you want to work in as early as pos­si­ble – is it re­search in sci­ence and academia? The cor­po­rate world? Don’t wait to get to post­grad­u­ate level to de­cide.’

Last year, Ndoni was awarded the Young African Lead­ers Ini­tia­tive Man­dela Wash­ing­ton Fel­low­ship and launched her or­gan­i­sa­tion’s branch in Bel­gium. She’s also a Green­mat­ter Fel­low and is a stu­dent par­tic­i­pant at the South­ern African Sys­tems Anal­y­sis Cen­tre.

So what’s next? Fin­ish­ing her PhD, see­ing BWIS ex­pand to other African coun­tries and the rest of the world, and creat­ing an ex­change pro­gramme for its mem­bers, she says.

Ndoni Mcunu means to change the world, one woman at a time.

In ru­ral and dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties, fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, fi­nan­cial con­straints, gen­der stereo­types and mis­con­cep­tions all play a role in dis­cour­ag­ing fe­male stu­dents.

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