Refilwe Mofokeng

To show support for National Science Week (5-12 August) and National Women’s Day (9 August), the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science is honouring its Wonder Women in Science in a series of articles. The women are considered passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are “making waves in the field of science”.

This week the spotlight falls on UKZN doctoral student Ms Refilwe Mofokeng:

Ms Refilwe Mofokeng is a socially conscious scientist on a mission to make the world a better place by educating people about what they can do to save the world. She believes that prevention is better than cure so goes out of her way to promote conservation education.

Her love for science started in high school when she saw a salt bridge experiment. As she watched electrons move from an anode to a cathode, she realised how science can change the world, highlighting the need for initiatives such as National Science Week, which inspire the next generation of scientists.

‘I enjoyed science in school and I wanted to impact the world in a positive way,’ she said. This led her to UKZN’s School of Life Sciences, where she studied marine and estuarine ecotoxicology, examining acute and chronic toxicity as well as synergistic relationships between contaminants and microplastics.’

At UKZN, Mofokeng found time to advocate for social causes and was presented with the Erasmus Mundus Award and the Nelson Mandela Scholarship to study in Italy and The Netherlands. She has chaired a student chapter of the Global Business Roundtable, and is a non-executive Director of the Durban Partnership Against Plastic Pollution (DPAPP).

For years, she worked on solving hypothetical problems in the laboratory but she yearned to find solutions to real world issues close to her heart. With this in mind, she established the Refilwe Mofokeng non-profit organisation which is involved in school food-garden projects, beach and harbour clean-up projects and motivational speaking. The organisation believes in empowering the community to #GetInvolved.

Mofokeng says her image of a scientist had been ‘an old man with crazy hair and thick glasses’. However, her perception changed when she learned about the following scientists:

  • Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Mathaai of Kenya
  • UKZN Associate Professor, Dr Ursula Scharler
  • Professor Nokuthula Kunene of the University of Zululand’s Department of Agriculture

‘These are some of the women in science who have held their own and have inspired me,’ she said.

Mofokeng believes that inspiring greatness means to bring people to an awareness where they are able to realise their full potential. She advises budding female scientists to believe in themselves and support each other. ‘Believe that you are enough, and if we help and support each other, then we as women will be enough,’ she says.

She says science education in South Africa is not where it should be. ‘There is a clear disconnect between science in schools and science in tertiary institutions. Therefore, it is important that the government works together with experts to bridge the gap.’

Mofokeng still has a lot that she wants to achieve, such as completing her PhD at UKZN, continuing her conservation efforts and educating people on the sustainable usage of natural resources.

Whether she is saving our oceans, feeding school kids or empowering communities, Refilwe Mofokeng is making a difference in the world.

We asked Mofokeng to create a “super hero profile” for herself based on the following questions:

Q. What super power would you possess and why?
A. To be super-fast so I have the time to explore all the ideas in my head.Q. What would your theme song be?
A. I Was Here by Beyoncé, because I want to leave my mark on the world.Q. Who would your best buddy be and why?
A. My mother because she is not afraid to tell me the truth, even when it is something I don’t want to hear.Q. Where would your secret hide-out be?
A. Stuck deep in the pages of a good book.

Q. What is your “kryptonite” (weakness)?
A. Time management.

Words and Photography: Sashlin Girraj