Julia Sibiya

To show support for National Science Week and National Women’s Month during the month of 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”.

Dr Julia Sibiya describes her plant breeding work as a blend of art and science, and herself as a plant improvement artist. ‘Like an artist, I create an image of the optimal plant variety and then use science to produce it. I find plants with desirable traits and cross pollinate them with plants that need improvement,’ she says.

She found her love for science in high school but chose it as her career path for two reasons. Firstly, she was intrigued by how science connected both the abstract and concrete in amazing ways. Secondly, all her science and maths teachers were women. ‘This helped me to get past the preconceived notion that women are not good in these fields. This made me believe that I could make it as a female scientist,’ she recalls.

While studying at the University of Zimbabwe, Sibiya was awarded  the Rockefeller Foundation (RF)fellowship to study for her Masters degree in America. ‘Having grown up in a township, this was huge for me and my family,’ she said.  ‘You can imagine the pride we felt. It was the beginning of a new chapter in my life.’

Sibiya is currently a senior lecturer at the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences. Her work has taken her to 18 countries, through funding from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), for the Masters and PhD programmes she’s involved with. One such programme is the Improved Masters in Cultivar Development for Africa (IMCDA) programme that trains plant breeders using modern breeding technologies.

She is currently conducting research on sweet sorghum for biofuels on behalf of eThala Management Services. The company will be contracting farmers from the community of Bizana in the Eastern Cape to grow the sorghum for their factory.

Sibiya admits that it’s hard to be a woman in any field. ‘I read somewhere that to be a woman, you must think like a man, act like a lady, look like a young girl and work like a horse. I find this to be true, as I have to balance being a lecturer, researcher, manager, wife and mother,’ she said.

She acknowledges two role models that have shaped her career path. The late Dr Desiree Cole was her mentor and assisted Sibiya in getting her RF fellowship and research grant.

She also looks up to Professor Rita Mumm, from the University of Illinois, for her achievements in the field of plant breeding.  This is in line with her definition of inspiring greatness, which she describes as, being a role model to the younger scientists.

‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito. Do not doubt your ability to do big things because you are a woman. It’s your secret weapon, so use it to chase your dreams,’ she says.

Sibiya has her heart set on sharing her knowledge and programmes with the rest of the world. ‘I would like to be one of the facilitators of the University of California’s Davis – African Plant Breeding Academy, which trains professional plant breeders in Africa.  This will help me to keep abreast with the latest developments in plant breeding,’ she said.

Sibiya’s story paints a picture of a researcher whose work is part art and science. Her legacy will be a masterpiece that will marvel and inspire generations.

We asked Sibiya to create a ‘super hero profile’ for herself. This is what she came up with.

Q. What would your superpower be and why?         
A.  As a mother, I feel that I already have super powers.  As long as I can take care of my family at home and function effectively at work, I feel like a superhero.

Q. What would be your theme song?
A. ‘You raise me up’ by Josh Groban, because of the line, ‘You raise me up to more than I can be.’

Q. Who would be your sidekick and why?      
A. My husband, children and Dr Rufaro Madakadze are my sidekicks because they cheer me on, provide support and help me to remain grounded.

Q. Where would your secret lair/ hideout be? 
A. My office, because it’s when I can reflect on things, plan my day and just connect with my spiritual being.  It energises me for the rest of the day.

Q. What is your kryptonite (weakness)?
A. I am a reserved, soft but caring person and I tend to empathise a lot with people. I feel that people sometimes take advantage of my good nature.

Words and Photography: Sashlin Girraj