Cynthia Chiang

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.

Astrophysics lecturer Dr Cynthia Chiang recently returned from Antarctica after participating in SPIDER, an experiment which studies the earliest moments of the universe’s creation. The project launched six telescopes into the stratosphere with a giant helium-filled balloon (roughly the size of Durban’s Kings Park stadium) to observe the leftover heat from the Big Bang.

Renowned physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi once said, “I think physicists are the Peter Pans of the human race. They never grow old, and they keep their curiosity. Dr Chiang was an imaginative child who loved solving puzzles and exploring. She still gets to do the same things today except the toys are bigger and better at the School of Maths, Statistics and Computer Science.

Chaing feels that gender imbalances in her field are being rectified. “It’s encouraging to see, that even within my short career, the number of female students has been steadily increasing”. Women in science seem to be becoming more prevalent.

If she had a super power, she would want the ability to see all of the electromagnetic wavelengths. “Imagine looking at the Milky Way and being able to tune your eyes from radio frequencies all the way up to gamma rays. How cool would that be”, she says pondering.

Cynthia believes that inspiring greatness means to catalyse a person to push themselves past their limits. “That drive must come from within yourself”, she adds. Chaing acknowledges her former PhD advisor, Andrew Lange, as a catalyst who inspired greatness within herself.

Danger Zone from the Top Gun soundtrack is her theme song because it breeds confidence and persistence. She feels that it’s better to fail at something important than to succeed at something unimportant.

The College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science celebrates Dr Chaing’s passion, contribution and wonderment for her work. Girl power meets brain power in the story of this Wonder Woman in Science.


Words and Graphics: Sashlin Girraj