Mayshree Singh

National Science Week is a countrywide initiative that promotes careers in Science, Engineering and Technology for South African students while National Women’s Day on 9 August commemorates the 1956 march of 20 000 women protesting against the country’s pass laws.

Both events 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 has showcased its support for these causes through a series of articles 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.

Wonder Women in Science are not to be seen as a standard, by which others are judged. Instead they should be seen as everyday people, with the tenacity to rise above real life struggles to realise their greatness.

Professionally speaking, Dr Mayshree Singh meets all the requirements to be a Wonder Woman in Science. She is a Lecturer and a Programme Co-ordinator for Land Surveying at the School of Engineering; and is the first woman to get her PhD in Land Surveying at UKZN. But her true power lies in her ability to manage work commitments and family life. During our interview, she received a call from her daughter to work out last minute extra-curricular logistics. She asked for a minute, made the arrangements and then got back to business – like a true #bosslady.

Singh pinpoints her first science-related memory as a Grade 4 experiment, where she witnessed a 5lt oil gallon tin being crushed by air pressure. ‘This was the first time I was able to see a reaction occurring, which piqued my interest in science,’ she recalls. This curiosity led her to pursue studies in Geology and Physics at UKZN. She later specialised in Seismotectonic research, which studies the stresses within tectonic plates for earthquake risk management and safety in construction.

Never seeing her gender as an impediment, Singh admits that she never felt inhibited as a woman in science. ‘The opportunities are there, you just have to look for them,’ she says. One such opportunity came from the Thuthuka Bursary Fund which helped her obtain her ground-breaking PhD.

Although Women in Science are under-represented, Singh believes that the bigger issue is that there are not enough scientists in the country. This is why initiatives like National Science Week are so important, as they address the skills shortage within the country.

She believes that investment in the schooling infrastructure and better career guidance will help usher in a new generation of scientists. She provides budding scientists with an impassioned yet real view on science. ‘Science is very challenging but it’s just as rewarding. You have a wide array of options which can see you working either in a lab or the outdoors, depending on what you’re interested in.’

Geophysics in combination with Land Surveying has many real-world applications that we may not be aware of. Singh’s students are involved in community-driven research that looks at these applications, such as:

  • investigating the effects of the KZN earthquake that occurred in February this year,
  • testing the earthquake resistance of RDP homes,
  • measuring the EMF radiation emitted from cellphone towers, and
  • locating groundwater aquifers in the Karoo.

As a mom with two young kids, Singh sometimes struggles with the travelling and after-hours demands of her job. But she chooses not to sweat the small stuff and confidently says, ‘I have the full support of my family so I make it work.’

She interprets the inspiring of greatness as being a role model for students and upcoming professionals. ‘When I was growing up there weren’t many geophysicists to look up to. So it’s important to give budding scientists something to aspire to.’ She looked to her mentor Professor Andrzej Kijko and Dr Mosidi Makgae (CEO at CGS) for her inspiration.

This Wonder Woman in Science has big things on the horizon, with the Underwater Heritage Mapping project she is planning to launch. This will allow students to use specialised cameras to scan/create an image of Durban shipwrecks as well get their divers licence. We are sure that Singh’s ground-breaking work will register on the Richter scale soon!

We asked Mayshree to create a ‘super hero profile’ for herself. Here are her answers:

Q. What would your super power be and why?
A. It would be the power to teleport, so that I can cut down travel time and spend more time with my kids.

Q. What would be your theme song?
A. It would be Rachel Platten’s Fight Song because like the song goes, ‘I still got a lot of fight left in me.’

Q. Who would be your sidekicks and why?
A. My sidekicks would be my kids Shreya and Shivek, because my daughter will keep me laughing and my son will keep me entertained.

Q. Where would your secret lair/ hide-out be?
A. My secret hide-out is my office at Howard College. Because it’s the last one in the corridor, it’s quite peaceful….and has really fast internet too.

Q. Describe your happy place.
A. I find my happy place at the ashram because it helps me connect spiritually and keeps me centred.

Words and Photography: Sashlin Girraj