Brenda Moodley

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

This week we feature Dr Brenda Moodley who is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Analytical Chemistry in the School of Chemistry and Physics.

Moodley pinpoints her first science-related memory to an experiment she did as a child in which she burned a piece a paper using the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass and was intrigued by how she created fire. This simple experiment ignited her interest in Science.

At school, she enjoyed working with numbers and felt proud every time she figured out a complex problem.  ‘Science challenges me and therefore it is very rewarding when I am able to find the solution to a problem,’ she said.

Moodley initially wanted to pursue a career in Biology but was put off by the thought of having to do rat dissections. She is now a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Analytical Chemistry at the School of Chemistry and Physics and currently supervises one postdoctoral, four PhD and four masters students.

Moodley is part of the Organic Environmental Research Group which focuses on the analysis of organic pollutants in different environmental matrices.  Their projects include analysis of organic pollutants, development of adsorbents for the remediation of wastewater, analysis of indigenous oils, and the impact of reforestation on river and soil quality.

She is proud of her work because of its impact on communities. Owing to her expertise in Environmental Analytical Chemistry, she was approached by the 50/50 South African TV conservation series to contribute to one of its documentaries.

Her research group sampled water and sediment from an area surrounding a landfill, as residents were complaining about the nasty odours. ‘We found that samples contained nitrogen and sulphur compounds which were not present upstream of the landfill site.  In addition relatively high amounts of various inorganic metals were identified downstream.’

She identifies two mentors who have shaped her career path. ‘Professor Dulcie Mulholland is a well-known researcher in her field, who provided me with excellent opportunities to share my research and develop holistically.  Professor Catherine Ngila taught me how to supervise postgraduate students and was a great example of a female researcher.’

Moodley acknowledges that the hardest part of being a woman scientist is balancing her work and home life. ‘Being equally productive as my male colleagues in the workplace and also running a home requires good planning. Women, however, are more than capable of succeeding at both,’ she explains.

She believes that more female scientists are needed for their unique perspectives. ‘Women can see the colour in a black and white situation and therefore offer a unique perspective,’ she says.

She describes inspiring greatness as the ability to rise above challenges to give your best. This is also her advice for budding female scientists. ‘Young women make excellent scientists, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Persevere and make your dreams become a reality.’

Moodley believes that Science education is not up to standard in South African schools and that more skilled teachers are needed. ‘It all really begins at school because that’s where students get their grounding in Science and Mathematics. The government should make this a number one priority if we are to make South Africa’s economy sustainable for future generations.’

Moodley’s plans include continuing her research in environmental analytical chemistry and becoming a mentor to future female scientists.

Moodley’s story is one of a curious child who grew up to become a scientist, whose work adds value to society. By trusting her instincts at a young age, she followed her passion and ended up helping communities in the process.

We asked her to create a “Super Hero profile” for herself through question posed to her. This is what she came up with:

Q. What would you super power be and why?
A. Heat vision so that I could zap away any nasty pollutants in our environment and a few nasty people as well.

Q. What would be your theme song?
A. Ziggy Marley’s Dragonfly because it describes the state of our environment about which I am passionate.

Q. Who would be your sidekick and why?
A. My sidekicks would definitely be my two sisters. One is a Scientist and the other is an Attorney, who would be able to bail us out should we get into trouble.

Q. Where would your secret lair/ hide out be?
A. My hideout would be up in the mountains at the source of a river where the water is still crystal clear and free of pollutants.

Q. What is your kryptonite (weakness)?
A. Expecting everyone to be honest and truthful.

Words and photography: Sashlin Girraj