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.
The women are described as passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are making waves in the field of science.
Dr Joyce Chitja, a lecturer in the African Centre for Food Security at UKZN, has been selected as a Wonder Women In Science in 2018. Chitja has excelled in the field of food security, becoming South Africa’s first woman PhD in Food Security.
Her grandmother had been great inspiration and Chitja has early memories of watching her farming using techniques such as innovative intercropping, drying and preservation. ‘Watching my grandmother’s translation of basic science into real life solutions inspired me to choose a career in science, and my passion was affirmed when I recognised her methods being taught at university,’ said Chitja who completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture in Horticultural Sciences, a Master’s degree in Social Science in Community Resources and her doctorate all at UKZN.
She pursued a career in academia, where her passion for her work and her resilience helped her overcome challenges related to age, gender, race and position. Chitja is a transdisciplinary scientist working to address food security by researching smallholder farming systems, access to markets, farming resources, farmer agency and empowerment. She takes her research a step further by engaging with food security policy-makers and industry practitioners.
She has served on various state and private agricultural boards and education boards, and engaged with rural communities, activities that inform her research agenda, teaching and community engagement efforts. Her work with communities has covered various districts in both Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal.
She is Deputy Chair of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) board, a role that includes assisting the council in tackling some of the grand challenges facing agriculture. Her long list of accolades and achievements include being second runner up in the Women in Science Awards in 2012 and receiving two external multi-year, multi-million rand research grants.
Chitja says Jesus Christ is her personal hero for his exemplary life of service and dedication. She also holds several colleagues in her field in high regard including Professor Ralph Christie and Professor Anu Rangarajan of Cornell University in the United States, and Professor Hussein Shimelis and Professor Relebohile Moletsane at UKZN. She credits her husband for being her biggest supporter.
Chitja hopes South Africa will prioritise a coordinated scientific teaching and research system promoting scientific innovation to produce products and services that address complex social and economic challenges. She believes that innovation should be prioritised at school level where excellent teachers are commissioned and bright students a identified at an early age.
Chitja believes including women in science is vital for the country’s growth. ‘Women play critical productive and leadership roles naturally and effectively. It is unwise and costly to a household and national development to exclude women from science,’ she said.
Her advice to future female scientists is to know where they want to go and look for ways to get there. ‘Know your purpose in life and let this inform your decisions, while remaining humble and open to learning,’ she says.
Chitja will continue working with student research teams to produce well-trained individuals who contribute meaningfully to society’s complex food security problems, and will contribute to society’s transformation through research that yields results for researchers, policy-makers and communities.
Because we see these Wonder Women in Science as modern-day heroines, we asked them to create a superhero profile for themselves. This is how Joyce sees herself.
Q. What would you super power be and why?
A. My superhero is Jesus Christ, and he gives me all the power I need.
Q. What would be your theme song?
A. New Wine by Hillsong.
Q. Who would be your sidekick and why?
A. My husband, as he is my loudest and most committed cheerleader.
Q. Where would your secret lair/ hideout be?
A. At a spirited worship service or a Spa!
Q. What is your kryptonite (weakness)?
A. Lindt chocolate and pearls!
Words: Christine Cuénod and Photography: Mr Sashlin Girraj