Aviwe Matiwane is an Eastern Cape scientist with a great passion for palaeontology. Registered at Rhodes University as a PhD student in the botany department, she is doing her research at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown on plant fossils of the Permian Period (from over 250 million years ago).
Matiwane’s work involves trying to solve a 200-year-old scientific problem: to determine the taxonomy of ancient fossil plants. “Species identification has proven to be subjective, inconsistent, and extremely challenging. My work considers new approaches,” says Matiwane. Her work also led her to be selected as one of the top 10 finalists in the 2016 FameLab competition, the annual science communication competition run by the British Council, the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement and Jive Media Africa.
Matiwane has a strong passion for science communication, education, outreach and women empowerment. “I love plants, both extant and extinct. Teaching younger people about my work and seeing their faces light up when I talk to them about fossils is the most rewarding thing to me,” she says. “South Africa is world-renowned for its fossil heritage, and researchers from across the world come here to work on our fossils. Learning about the evolution of plants and getting to work with them in the lab on a daily basis, to try and solve difficult questions, keeps me going.”
Matiwane is passionate about in women in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). “Palaeontology in South Africa is historically a male-dominated field. However, it is slowly changing and I would like to see more women from diverse backgrounds entering the field and finding their ground,” she says.
She is inspired by women palaeoscientists “who are leading experts in their fields, who do ground-breaking work; those who make sure that upcoming and young scientists have a voice and safe working spaces,” and by the women in her family. “They have played a huge role in my life and shaping the person I am today and aspire to be in the future.” — Aaisha Dadi Patel