Wonder Women In Science (WWIS)

Dreams of a New Passion for Science in Africa

Dr Bongiwe Mshengu, a senior tutor in the School of Chemistry and Physics and in UKZN’s Science Access Programme, dreams of a day when she will see an African child appreciating and relating to the science underpinning everyday life, and hopes to be remembered as an African woman dedicated to science.

Mshengu believes that if students in Africa could better relate to the theories taught via principles seen in everyday examples and through research that betters the lives of communities; this would ignite a new enthusiasm for the subject. She said that underperformance in scientific subjects in South Africa is partly due to a lack of resources and facilities to add a practical aspect to theoretical learning.

‘We (Africans) need to embrace science,’ said Mshengu.

Mshengu’s own interest in science began in her childhood through treatment she received for a painful boil from a traditional healer. The healer’s use of herbs led Mshengu to wonder about the source of these healing powers.

A top achiever at school, she looked up to her uncle Mr Sibusiso Madlala, the most educated and successful member of her family whose footsteps she dreamt of following to university, and aimed to become a doctor. Despite not meeting the requirements for medical school, she realised the many options afforded by a BSc degree and enrolled for a BSc in chemistry and biochemistry, excelling and receiving Dean’s Commendations during her undergraduate studies, and going on to receive her Honours in Chemistry cum laude and later her PhD in Chemistry.

Mshengu is interested in phytochemical investigation of medicinal plants and synthesis of biologically-active natural products and their analogues, analytical chemistry of medicinal plants, and chemistry education. She also tutors Physical Sciences to Grade 12 learners from rural schools on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal.

The emerging researcher strives for balance in her life by working at her own pace and setting achievable goals. The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a challenge in shifting her working hours from day to night to avoid her young children appearing unannounced in her teaching videos, but she has come up with creative ways to deal with the associated stress, such as baking and reading. She has also used the time to reform her teaching methods, incorporating more technology and developing a blended approach that she will maintain into the future.

Being a woman in her field and emphasising the importance of mentorship for professional development, Mshengu described finding collaborators or mentors for research and moral support amongst many male colleagues as challenging, with few women available to fill this role.

She believes that women bring with them a crucial personality trait to combat the impression of scientific careers as difficult or boring, that of nurturing those entering the field and supporting them as they progress in their careers.

Mshengu advised high school learners to spend time identifying their passion and talent, and then to work hard towards achieving the results required for their dream career, rather than studying for the sake of it and ending up in a job they do not enjoy.

She advised university students to make the effort to differentiate themselves through hard work and good marks, involvement in community outreach, and work experience.

Mshengu the Superhero

If she had a superpower, it would be to heal people, something she believes is part of her calling.

Her theme song would be Beyoncé’s I was here, and if she could order one gadget it would be the Marvel Quinjet, to get her wherever she needs to be at high speed.

‘My “Avengers” team to take on the world would be my husband Bonginkosi Mshengu, my mother Mrs Z Madlala, and my son Nkanyiso Mshengu.

‘My secret lair would be my daughter’s bedroom, because she brings so much joy to my heart.’

And if Mshengu had a “kryptonite”, it would be cappuccinos and chocolate.

Words: Ms Christine Cuénod and Photography: Mr Sashlin Girraj

To commemorate National Science Week and National Women’s Month, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science is honouring its female scientists through a Wonder Women In Science campaign, highlighting women who are passionate about their fields, who are pioneering innovative research and development, and who are examples to women following in their footsteps towards careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).