Alaika Kassim

To show support for National Science Week and National Women’s Month during the month of August, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science is honouring its Wonder Women in Science through a series of articles. The women are considered passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are ‘making waves in the field of science’.

This week the spotlight falls on UKZN lecturer Dr Alaika Kassim from the School of Engineering:

Dr Alaika Kassim’s interest in Science started in a Physics class, during high school practicals. She remembers vividly the moment she decided to become a scientist. ‘The moment that convinced me to study science occurred during my first look through a microscope,’ she recalls. At that moment, she did not realise that the seeds had been sown for a flourishing career.

Kassim blossomed into a dedicated and hardworking student at university, choosing to pursue Bioresources Engineering at UKZN’s School of Engineering. The fruits of her labour paid off this April, when she graduated with her PhD. Her research focused on developing a post-harvest citrus treatment unit for the kumquat fruit, to alleviate green and blue mould.

Kassim is now a Bioresources Engineering lecturer, who teaches and supervises students up to Masters level. She also wants to establish herself as a researcher but admits she has a long way to go.

Kassim can be considered a rare species, as she is a pioneer in her field and at the University. She is the first female chairperson of the South African Institute of Agricultural Engineers (SAIAE), a regulatory body in the industry. She is also the first female lecturer in the discipline of Bioresources Engineering at UKZN. She considers these to be her proudest achievements in academia thus far.

During her time in Industry, she cites her gender and age as the main challenges she has faced as a female engineer. ‘As one of few women in my field, I had to prove my worth to my male counterparts. However, even female colleagues gave me a hard time because I was younger than they were.’

Kassim could have retreated but she was motivated to persevere by her lecturer and supervisor, Professor Tilahun Workneh. ‘Prof Workneh inspired me to remain in research and pursue my academics,’ she says.

Kassim believes that more women in science are needed to change the status quo. ‘In the past, there were a few women like Marie Curie who made scientific breakthroughs. However, today we have many opportunities for women in science. We need to use these opportunities to showcase our capabilities,’ she says.

Her words to budding female scientists are practical and personal. ‘I would say the same thing that I would say to my younger self: Always work hard for what you are passionate about, and you will be rewarded with more than you put in.’

She defines inspiring greatness as changing lives for the better, which is something she tries to do in her life. She has been involved in personal feeding and donation schemes, and has given career talks at high schools.

Like the sun is to plants, it is hoped that Alaika Kassim’s story will spawn the next crop of scientists who can bask in her light.

We asked Kassim to create a ‘super hero profile’ for herself. This is what she came up with.

Q. What would your superpower be? 
A. To alleviate hunger.

Q. What would be your theme song?
A. The Wonder Woman theme song of course.

Q. Who would be your sidekicks and why?    
A. I do not depend on a sidekick. I am all I ever need.

Q. Where would your secret lair/ hideout be? 
A. In my lab, but don’t tell anybody.

Q. What is your kryptonite (weakness)?
A. I’ll have to get back to you on this one.

Words and Photography: Sashlin Girraj