Ndoni Mcunu

National Science Week from  5 – 8 August 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 will showcase its support for the 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.

Meet our first heroine – Ms Ndoni Mcunu, a Wonder Women in Science from the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Mcunu says her first science-related memory goes back to a National Science week initiative at Rhodes University in Grahamstown when she was 16. She was mesmerised by a chemistry experiment which piqued her interest and she ultimately decided to pursue studies in Food Security and Agricultural Production at UKZN.

Mcunu, now pursuing her PhD at Wits and still in the early stages of her career, has encountered challenges in a field where women scientists are rare and seldom acknowledged. ‘There is a lack of mentorship, guidance and support from women already in the industry for those wanting to enter,’ she said.

Scientists tend to be solitary characters, so Mcunu feels the scientific community needs to come together to create a sisterhood in science. ‘There are not enough women in the sector to empower others.’

She brings solutions to problems she identifies through the Black Women In Science (BWIS) organisation – a non-profit organisation she started to promote careers for young, Black women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Operating mainly in Ulundi, BWIS assists young women considering a career in Science. BWIS aims to dispel myths such as: ‘Science is an abstract subject reserved for the brainy or those with goods maths marks’.

‘We try to simplify things by looking at ways to solve real world problems such as water conservation or waste management,’ said Mcunu.

She sees a lot of herself in the girls she works with, as she too started with optimism and hunger for knowledge although struggling with Maths in high school.

Her work with BWIS earned her a position on the Mail & Guardian’s 2016 list of 200 Young South Africans. She was nominated by a friend without her knowledge, and was completely surprised when told of her success.

Mcunu believes that there is a lot to do to prepare and develop the next generation of scientists. ‘The gap between Science taught at high schools and at university needs to be bridged. The private and government sectors need to encourage innovation that applies to real world problems, while PhD graduates should be more actively involved in policy development and giving advice on major issues in South Africa.’

What’s next for this Wonder Women in Science? She wants to get involved in policy development and strategic sustainable planning in the agricultural, food security and climate change sectors. ‘I hope to establish an institute of knowledge within a South African university,’ she said, adding that she also wants to help BWIS nurture and grow, hoping that it will someday fund students for Higher Education.

We asked Mcunu to create a “super hero profile” for herself:

Q. What would your super power be and why?
A. It would be to read people’s minds, so I could tell who is authentic and who is not.

Q. What would be your theme song?
A. Beyonce’s Flawless, because ‘I woke up like this’ (she does the obligatory hand gesture).

Q. Who would be your sidekicks and why?
A. My brothers Simo and Zibuko because they build me up, don’t hold back the truth and keep me grounded.

Q. Where would your secret lair/ hide out be?
A.Wherever my nieces Enziwe and Moyo are because they help bring me peace and I can just be Ndoni.

Q. Describe your happy place.
A. Whenever I get a moment to myself (usually in my room) I find my happy place. “Me” time helps keep me centred and lets me reflect.

Words and Photography: Sashlin Girraj