National Science Week is a country-wide initiative promoting careers in Science, Engineering and Technology for South African students while National Women’s Day commemorates the 1956 march of 20 000 women protesting against the country’s pass laws.
Both events – held during August – shed light on important issues including a skills shortage in Science, Engineering and Technology and the limited presence of women in these fields.
UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science is showcasing its support for the causes through a series of articles this month acknowledging its own Wonder Women in Science – all passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are ‘kicking ass’ in Science and stand as shining examples for all women.
Our second featured heroine is Dr Deborah Robertson-Andersson, a Senior Lecturer in Marine Biology in the School of Life Sciences:
Dr Robertson-Andersson is warm and friendly, appearing rather shy and reserved until she talks about her work! She then transforms into a passionate scientist/conservationist whose enthusiasm makes one want to join her and jump into action to save a mollusc (with an unpronounceable name) or stop plastic pollution in our oceans!
Her passion started at a young age when during holidays both her grandfathers would try to get her interested in their shell and rock collections. But it was Marine Biology that ultimately grabbed Robertson-Andersson’s total interest evidenced by her – at the age of 8 – cleaning the outside of boat hulls to get out of tidying her room!
She wanted to learn about the things she was picking off the boats and her fascination with all things marine never stopped growing.
Robertson-Andersson, who earned her PhD in 2007, has won awards at international conferences, sailed on the Bark Europa from Cape Town to St Helena, and even tried out for the South African Olympic judo team.
She was the first qualified integrated multitrophic aquaculturist in the country. Her five-year-old daughter puts it very plainly: ‘My mommy grows seaweed in abalone pooh, to feed to bacteria, to make them pass wind, and for fun she gets jellyfish to mate.’
After joining the School of Life Sciences in 2013, she and a colleague, Mr Gan Moodley, set up the Marine Biology, Aquaculture, Conservation Education/Ecotoxicology Laboratory or MACE Lab where research is conducted into the effects of microplastic on marine life off Durban.
They now run several community initiatives including beach clean ups at Vetch’s Pier and a plastic pollution clean-up drive called Booms, Bins and Bags. MACE Lab have regular slots on Radio Hindvani, Lotus FM and Radio Al Ansaar; have been featured on the SABC-TV programme 50/ 50, and will soon appear on M-Net’s Carte Blanche show.
Robertson-Andersson says being a woman Marine Biologist has its challenges. ‘My work requires some heavy lifting with the resulting aches and pains not always cured by a soak in a hot bath.’ Aquaculture is also very male dominated, so it took her a long time to prove that she was capable and become well respected in the field.
Science in Africa is not just about pushing buttons, it requires tenacity which is why she teaches her students that like farmers they need to ‘make a plan’.
She feels it’s important for more women to become involved in Science because they think differently and offer a different perspective. ‘We don’t need to replace men in science, we need to work together. We have different strengths and focuses so by working together we can create a better result for all.’
She has the same open-mindedness about Science education in South Africa. ‘We need to train scientists to have business, political and social savvy, and take the knowledge they generate in books and translate that into a form applicable to the wider community.’
Her advice to budding scientists is simple and practical: ‘When life gives you lemons you make lemonade. You can accept the sour truth or make things like lemon meringue, lemonade and lemon cheesecake to sweeten the taste.’
As a UKZN Lecturer, Robertson-Andersson’s job is to inspire greatness among her students. She believes by being the best version of herself she can inspire a passion for marine science within her students – especially when they are too hard on themselves.
What’s next for this Wonder Woman in Science? She wants to visit Antarctica as it’s the only continent that she has not visited for her work (for free), and she wants to see some snow too.
We asked her to create a ‘super hero profile’ for herself through answering several questions:
Q. What would your super power be and why?
A. I already have one, I’m a WOMAN! This allows me to be a mom, doctor, nurse, researcher, lecturer, teacher and so on. Eat your heart out Wonder Woman!
Q. What would your theme song be?
A. I Lived by One Republic because of the line: ‘With every broken bone I swear I lived’. Mine totals 40!
Q. Who would be your sidekicks and why?
A. My colleague Mr Gan Moodley (not by his choice) because of all of the science adventures I’ve roped him into.
Q. Where would your secret lair/hide-out be?
A. Somewhere under the ocean because it covers more than 70% of the earth’s surface and would be difficult to find.
Q. Describe your happy place.
A. Sailing on a tall ship in the middle of the Atlantic with all sails set and in the trade winds, plus a sunset on the horizon, dolphins in the bow waves and sperm whales visible from the yard arms.
Words and Photography: Sashlin Girraj