Adriana Marais

The first week of August marks important times in South Africa’s future and past. National Science Week (3 – 8 August) is a countrywide initiative that promotes careers in Science, Engineering and Technology to South African students. National Women’s Day (9 August) marks the 59th anniversary of the 1956 march of 20 000 women, who petitioned against the country’s pass laws.

Both events shed light on important issues: a skills shortage in Science, Engineering and Technology; and the limited female presence in these fields. UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science showcases its support for both causes in a series of articles that acknowledges its very own Wonder Women in Science. These are passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines (within the college) who are “kicking ass” in Science and stand as shining examples for all women.

Quantum Biology Postdoctoral student, Ms Adriana Marais is one of 25 South Africans on a shortlist for the Mars ONE project. She was also named as one of 15 International Rising Talents from around the world at the 17th L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science awards ceremony in Paris. A self-proclaimed extremophile, she thrives in challenging situation and contemplating life’s questions.

Marais feel that she has the best job on Earth, “I spend my days thinking about questions that I have about the world around me”. She also loves travelling to new places to share ideas with other researchers. While her head is above the clouds, her feet remain firmly rooted in her work at the School of Chemistry & Physics.

Marais has never felt that being a woman was a challenge in her field. She has always been encouraged for her work rather than her gender. “I have been lucky enough to have had mentors who have encouraged me as a scientist rather than as a woman in science”.
Her super power of choice would be the ability to travel faster than the speed of light. This would come in handy should she be chosen for the Mars One project, taking place some 225.3 million km away from Earth.

She admires people who have dedicated their lives to the expansion of human knowledge. After watching Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, she found Carl Sagan to be huge inspiration.

Adriana believes that education is a privilege that comes with the responsibility to share knowledge. She is involved in the promotion of science and space exploration as a volunteer for the Foundation for Space Development South Africa. Inspiring greatness in the next generation is an important duty to this PhD graduate.

It’s no surprise that her theme song is Space Oddity by David Bowie. Like the expressions “reach for the stars” and “the sky’s the limit” imply, Adriana wants budding scientists to open their eyes to possibility. “Never let anyone extinguish your curiosity or your belief in yourself. These are your tools to discover great things”.

The College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science lauds Adriana Marais’s for her work in Quantum Biology and her efforts to inspire future scientists. Girl power meets brain power in the story of this Wonder Woman in Science.

Words and Graphics: Sashlin Girraj