Science & Technology

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Simangele Mbali Msweli (24)

Simangele Msweli is a science student who plays a role in translating science to a non-science audience and in using science to influence policy. Biodiversity, the initial interest of the young scientist, is not distributed evenly on Earth; it is richest in the tropics and around the equator. It is for this and other reasons that she aspires towards not only doing research in South Africa, but Africa at large, because the continent is such a rich biodiverse land mass and the various fauna and flora remain largely under described.

Msweli recently submitted her MSc in Biological Sciences (specialising in pollination biology) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and will be registered for her PhD by July 1. She completed her honours degree cum laude and has received various international student awards that have allowed her to present work in Australia (2015), Uganda (2016), the United Kingdom and China (2017).

Growing up in the beautiful and biodiverse Mtubatuba region of KwaZulu-Natal made Msweli curious about her natural environment. Her fascination with changes in vegetation, wetlands and the landscape in general led to wanting to understand the causes of those changes. In high school, she joined an environmental club. “This launched my career, as it exposed me to more environmental issues through excursions for wild dog tracking and sea turtle tours, among many other activities.”

Msweli participates in environmental education initiatives in UKZN, where they create an environment to share science with primary and high school kids. An aspiring researcher and lecturer, she hosts community outreach programmes such as providing environmental education at the Happy Earth Festival and the Royal Show. An interest in policymaking led her to be a member of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network; she has participated in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in India (2012), Mexico (2016) and Canada (2017). She is a recent recipient of the UKZN Talent Excellence and Equity Acceleration Scholarship, which means the university will fund her PhD for the next three years and offer an academic post for research and lecturing for three years after its completion. — Sifiso Buthelezi

Author - bhavika
Christine de Kock (25)

Christine de Kock (25)

Artificial Intelligence engineer, Media24

What do you do when you start your career as an Artificial Intelligence (AI) engineer at the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)and do research on the use of AI for astronomical discovery in terabyte scale data? You leave to study an MSc in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh, graduate cum laude, and enter the media. This describes the impressive and stratospheric career path of Christine de Kock, who is now a data scientist and product owner for AI at Media24.

“In the final year of my studies at Stellenbosch University my lecturer, Professor James Bekker, introduced us to the emerging field of data science,” says de Kock. “I can still remember the frisson of excitement I felt when reading industry case studies and realising that this way of thinking was growing traction as a discipline itself. I knew that this would be my future.”

At the SKA de Kock worked on the search for pulsars — rapidly rotating neutron stars — using neural networks. It was a deep end swimming start for her as she barely knew anything about astronomy, but there were plenty of people keen to help. It inspired her to further her career and to follow her dream of being in media.

“My main focus at the moment is to productionise my master’s dissertation for News24,” says de Kock. “The wonderful thing about AI and data science is that it can be applied in pretty much any field. I’ve worked in the media and astronomy, but there are many other industries where cool things are happening such as in healthcare and agriculture. My plan for the future is simple — solve interesting problems using data.” — Tamsin Oxford

Matthew Westaway (26)

Matthew Westaway (26)

Co-founder and chief executive, Voyc.ai

After completing a MSc in Engineering and the Advanced Programme in Design Thinking at the Hasso Plattner Institute at the University of Cape Town, Matthew Westaway is geared towards solution finding. In this world of AI and blockchain technology that few understand, it is encouraging to know there are those who have an in-depth knowledge of these systems and are creating solutions that have wide societal reach.

Westaway has been a core driver of many African-first innovations including The Hourglass project and Hello Baby 3D Prints, Africa’s first ultrasound 3D printing service.

Westaway is chief executive of Voyc.ai. Together with Lethabo Motsoaledi, Westaway co-founded M&W Innovation Studio. At M&W, through applying design thinking methodology, they help companies transition towards customer-centricity and thrive in the ever-changing global paradigm. Westaway developed Africa’s first ever multilingual compatible Artificial Intelligence algorithm, which automatically converts speech to text and extracts key topics through a breakthrough natural language processing algorithm.

“When working on our various client projects we would often spend many hours transcribing recorded conversations into text and thereafter synthesising the text to determine themes and insights … This process frustrated us, and we looked at how we could use AI and machine learning to assist us be more productive and mitigate some of the biases … So, we developed voyc.ai (“pronounced voice”) — a SaaS (software as a service) solution to visualise and organise your conversations.”

Voyc.ai is a core analytics tool and is now being used by other design thinkers and teams in corporate innovation and market research departments, as well as professionals such as journalists, lawyers and researchers who need a quick transcription of their conversations and want those conversations to be searchable.

Westaway’s success in creating world-class algorithms has been through stressing the importance of applying the human centric-design methodology to build Artificial Intelligence technology that all people can use, not just experts. His desire is for everyone to have the superhuman power of obtaining insights from reams of unstructured data. — Sifiso Buthelezi

Dr Pradeep Kumar (34)

Dr Pradeep Kumar (34)

Senior lecturer, Wits University

It was while at high school, participating in science fairs and mathematics olympiads that Dr Pradeep Kumar discovered his passions.

“One project I clearly remember involved the live food adulteration detection and presentation. I was really fascinated as to how chemicals and their mixtures can produce confirmatory results and how science could be applied to everyday life. This was the start to my growing interest in science and hence research. Twenty years later, I am still mixing chemicals and being fascinated every day,” says the 34-year-old.

An internationally trained pharmacist, Kumar is a senior pharmaceutics lecturer in Wits University’s department of pharmacy and pharmacology as well as a neuro-regenerative medicine researcher at the Wits Advanced Drug Delivery Platform. Kumar’s doctoral thesis — focused on engineering neural devices for spinal cord injury interventions — was awarded the Most Prestigious PhD Degree Award. He has also established a first-in-the-world computational analysis and programming algorithm for the design of drug delivery devices and polymeric architectures. For the advancement of his discipline, Kumar was awarded the prestigious Claude Leon Foundation merit award in 2018 and an African-German Network of Excellence in Science junior researcher grant, funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the German education and research ministry in 2018. Earlier this year, Kumar also clinched the SPER Young Scientist Award at PST2018, Bangkok. He has also presented his research at reputed international conferences globally and is the recipient of the 2011 Elsevier’s NanoToday and 2012 International Society of Developmental Neuroscience awards.

As for what drives him, Kumar says: “In one word: nature. I am always fascinated by how even the simplest of natural phenomenon is the result of complex arrangements and processes. My research involves the generation of bio-mimetic structures. I strive to replicate the structure and function of neuronal — brain and spinal cord — tissue in the lab using bioinspired platforms and ‘natural’ instincts. In four words, working with the best. I am really privileged to work with the best in the field at the Wits Advanced Drug Delivery Platform.

“True success,” he adds, “can only be achieved through hard work and with support from those that matter in your life: family, friends and colleagues.” — Carl Collison

Mpho Mtsi (30)

Mpho Mtsi (30)

Analyst, Tamela Holdings

In these times of high unemployment among vulnerable groups, and as migration towards cities intensifies, there are those who see the potential that small business and rural communities can harness through entrepreneurship. Mpho Mtsi is an actuary by profession, with only one exam to be written this year to qualify as one of very few South African black female actuarial fellows today.

To bridge the investment skills and knowledge gap, Mtsi is empowering herself to empower communities — especially women. She is currently completing her Master of Science in Global Finance as one of the youngest people accepted into the programme, based between Hong Kong, New York and Shanghai.

Mtsi has established herself as a consummate professional, now taking on the world of investments and being one of the few actuaries in this industry who encourages the growth of local businesses, genuine and broad-based transformation as well as socially responsible investment practices.

She has mentored several young actuarial science graduates locally and globally while working to challenge the stereotypes and reservations international investors and professionals may have about Africa; having represented, worked with and been invited to speak for the Howard University/Maryland Sister State Women in Stem events at the Essence Festival in Durban, South Africa and the World Bank in Washington DC.

As the land debate moves towards expropriation and the question of food security, she has now embarked on farming projects in rural Eastern Cape in order to create investment opportunities, as well as allow those who own the land and little else to reclaim the dignity of being able to provide for their families. Mtsi is serious about utilising the organic knowledge of communities to revive the entrepreneurial spirit.

She continues to be recognised and supported globally for her efforts as she quietly establishes herself as an advocate for women in science, educational opportunities for Africans and the support of African entrepreneurs to effectively change the trajectory of this (human) resource-rich continent. — Sifiso Buthelezi

Dr Thulwaneng Mashifane (33)

Dr Thulwaneng Mashifane (33)

Postdoctoral research fellow, South African Environmental Observation Network

Dr Thulwaneng Mashifane studied for a PhD in Ocean and Atmosphere Science at UCT and graduated in 2017. His social media was flooded with congratulations, as he was the first black South African to obtain a PhD in this field.

According to research, South Africa has tripled its black science PhD graduates over the last decade, and since 2013 has been graduating more black PhDs than white ones — a marked change from the situation under the apartheid regime.

But the academic space still needs further reform. Mashifane has been quoted for blaming the lack of funding as the reason most black academic candidates never complete their qualifications. Due to his determination and excellence, during his own PhD he received two prestigious fellowships, the German Academic Exchange Services and the UCT Science Faculty PhD Equity Fellowship.

Mashifane’s PhD research used biogeochemical models to understand ocean biogeochemistry and the production of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, which has a global warming potential 265 to 310 times higher than that of carbon dioxide. He is one of the few experts in South Africa who has skills in biogeochemical modelling, and has transferred these skills to students as a tutor and teaching assistant at UCT.

His postdoctoral research applies high performance computing to advance biogeochemical modelling around the coast of South Africa and aid in exploring future climate change scenarios in these times of unpredictable weather patterns. Mashifane is actively involved in education outreach programmes at the South African Environmental Observation Network, where he frequently visits schools based in coastal fishing communities and participates in science camps to inspire and teach learners about the importance of the oceans around us.

He participates in international discovery research and capacity building cruises between Namibia, South Africa and Mauritius, where he contributes to the advancement of knowledge in the Indian and Atlantic oceans. — Sifiso Buthelezi

Sinethemba “Nombala” Makanya (31)

Sinethemba “Nombala” Makanya (31)

Science communicator and PhD student, Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research

Part of Sinethemba Makanya’s journey has been undertaking training to practice as a traditional healer. It is this journey, she believes, that led her to enrol for a PhD in Medical Humanities at Wits in 2015 on the topic of demystifying traditional healing by writing it down as a theory and model. The importance of such an undertaking is often frowned upon by traditional gatekeepers, but such processes create an understanding of ancient African perspectives and knowledge that is transferred almost solely orally.

Makanya is doing her PhD at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. Growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, amid many tales and myths, she completed her first degrees at UKZN. She then won a Fulbright Scholarship to complete a master’s in Drama Therapy at New York University. In 2013 she joined the Drama for Life programme at Wits as a lecturer in applied drama and conducted applied drama interventions with communities via Themba Interactive, a Gauteng nongovernmental organisation. She also taught acting and drama in education at the University of Pretoria.

The last eight months have seen her shine globally as a science communicator, giving three-minute talks on her research questions and initial findings. She is a recipient of the three-year doctoral bursary from the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development. In September 2017 she won the Centre of Excellence’s Spark Talks completion for all their bursary holders. The centre nominated her as a participant in the 2018 Wits heats of Fame Lab, where she was the winner of the heat. The heat seeks to rid science of its jargon and make the information accessible to the public. In three minutes she covered a lot of ground about African knowledge, mental health, decolonising knowledge and the Life Esidimeni tragedy. — Sifiso Buthelezi

Dr Veve Dladla (28)

Dr Veve Dladla (28)

Research officer, Sugar Milling Research Institute

It takes a stack of determination and a ton of passion to emerge from a family of 21 children to become a scientist with a doctorate in chemical engineering, and that is exactly what Dr Vezekile “Veve” Dladla did. She managed to complete her matric in spite of the family falling on hard times and was selected as the first South African to participate in the James Madison University/University of KwaZulu-Natal exchange programme. This led to publication in a leading journal, an impressive achievement for one so young. She also engages in groundbreaking research and has managed to build a family, all in only 28 years.

“I’ve always been fascinated by science, especially chemistry,” she says. “I had a fully funded opportunity to work as a research scholar at James Madison University in the USA where we did materials science research with fellow undergraduates. My curiosity remained unsated and so I got my PhD.”

For Dladla, the journey wasn’t easy. Coming from a polygamist family where she was child number 20 of 21, her family didn’t have much money and her father, the breadwinner, lost his job when she was 12. To fund her university application and acceptance fees, she had to apply for funds from her local church in Botha’s Hill. “I was able to obtain a Study Trust bursary to pay for part of my undergraduate studies and finally got a scholarship from the National Research Foundation to fund my postgraduate studies,” she says. “My goal is to continue contributing to the development of a scientific body of knowledge and technologies that will improve the quality of chemically-processed daily use products such as sugar and paper.”

Dladla is intent on helping take South Africa into the frontlines of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to empower more South Africans by transforming jobs and creating new opportunities. She’s an inspiration for young women in South Africa who aspire to step into the sciences and change the world. — Tamsin Oxford

Sindiswa Lukhele (30)

Sindiswa Lukhele (30)

PhD candidate, University of the Witwatersrand

It was an allergic reaction as a child that ignited Sindiswa Lukhele’s passion for medicine and research.

“I came across an encyclopaedia in my mother’s books that focused on different diseases and how to treat them. Following multiple doctors’ appointments, I had to refer to the encyclopaedia to understand a doctor’s diagnosis. As child I was fascinated by the pictures of diseases more than the actual treatment, which sparked an interest for me to explore on anything related to human health. It was only when I got to university that I was introduced to alternative medicine as a form of treatment against cancer, which led to an interest on drug discovery,” says Lukhele.

A master’s graduate and PhD candidate in clinical microbiology and infectious diseases at Wits University’s respiratory and meningeal pathogens research unit, Lukhele is currently involved in a research study titled Genetic Characterization of Group B Streptococcus Among Colonizing and Invasive Disease Isolates in South Africa, in collaboration with the University of Oxford, UK.

She says this achievement is one of her proudest moments.“A surreal moment and a dream come true.” The study aims to identify biomarkers associated with neonatal meningitis and sepsis within a Group B streptococcus genome. Her study has a potential to aid in maternal and neonatal vaccine development to save babies from dying and also reduce the number of stillbirths. She was motivated to pursue research in infectious diseases when her nephew was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.

Lukhele is also involved in a project called Cannabis for Cancer. Adopted from her master’s research, it aims to identify compounds of cannabis sativa that are effective against all types of cancer.
A published author who has supervised interns and a part-time master’s student, she also mentors undergraduate students who wish to pursue research in their respective fields.

“Researchers play a huge role in society by sharing information that may benefit or affect society. I regard myself as a researcher whose aim is to create awareness on infectious diseases and the use of alternative medicine such as cannabis. I use social platforms to share information on what might impact society health wise and how it can improved. Currently there is no vaccine for Group B streptococcus invasive diseases. I would like to aid in the development of the vaccine to improve infant health in South Africa and across the borders.”— Carl Collison

Grace Nomthandazo Ngubeni (28)

Grace Nomthandazo Ngubeni (28)

Associate lecturer and PhD candidate, Wits University

Grace Ngubeni is a bright young mind completing a PhD and changing the world for the better. She has studied a postgraduate degree at Rhodes University, published two scientific papers, and received numerous awards during her research career. She has also received the Professional Provident Society Scholarship and, during her MSc, received the department of science and technology Women In Science TATA Scholarship Award. She currently holds two prestigious scholarships — MERG and the NRF Scarce Skills Doctoral Scholarship and is a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society.

“I was introduced to research in my third year of study,” says Ngubeni. “I engaged in a year-long biochemistry research project and a semester-long chemistry research internship programme at Rhodes University. It was during the internship programme with the physical chemistry lab where my interest in scientific research grew.” Her interest developed as she continued her BSc honours and master’s studies at Rhodes and today she is currently pursuing her PhD at Wits University. Her research involves the synthesis and characterisation of semiconducting nanocrystals for the fabrication of solar cell devices — the production of renewable energy.

“Once I have qualified as a doctor of philosophy in chemistry I would like to continue teaching others in the sciences through research and lecturing,” she says. “I also hope to build my professional career in a more defined speciality within chemistry and contribute towards knowledge through further research. My ultimate long-term goal is to team up with like-minded professionals to empower the next generation as this would pay it forward and create jobs in our country.” — Tamsin Oxford

Takunda Mambo (29)

Takunda Mambo (29)

Research lead, Trustlab Blockchain Innovation Studio

As a research and development lead for Trustlab Blockchain Innovation Studio, Takunda Mambo’s role is centred around addressing the neglect that faces early childhood development (ECD) in South Africa. This done through a Unicef-backed project startup called Amply. TrustLab, aligned to the United Nations (UN) and using insights from Mambo, is looking to change this neglect of ECD and is already planning to implement its work in other developing countries.

The mandate involves evaluating opportunities for the use of Ethereum blockchain technology to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. TrustLab developed the IXO Protocol — the first of its kind globally — in response to the UN’s call for data usage to improve development outcomes. As part of the company, he is currently implementing South Africa’s first use case of blockchain technology to monitor early childhood development centre attendance, which will, in turn, be used to inform and aid government and donor funding disbursement to children most in need.

Mambo has an extensive background in several areas pertaining to sustainable development in the technology and social development spheres. He’s a doctoral candidate at the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Centre, undertaking research on the use of mobile phone services to improve the livelihoods of underprivileged communities.

Rural communities are not privy to the service delivery that their city counterparts enjoy, but smartphone penetration and further exploration of access to data may present opportunities for innovation and alternative income streams. Additionally, Mambo is also applying his knowledge at Simanye, an organisation of individuals passionate about creating impact as well as driving profitable businesses; in an increasingly globalised world, finding intersecting points for business and community development is productive for both markets and communities.
Through their work, they develop integrated and inclusive strategies that help businesses grow while also finding ways to benefit customers, employees and the community along with the company. — Sifiso Buthelezi

Innocentia Mahlangu (28)

Innocentia Mahlangu (28)

Civil engineer and project manager, Hatch Africa

Innocentia Mahlangu is a civil engineer who specialises in the design and implementation of railway infrastructure projects. In an environment dominated by men, she is one of very few female construction managers to have overseen the construction of a multimillion-rand railway project. Her excellent performance on the project saw her recognised in national and international engineering publications and she received a Global Award of Recognition for construction excellence from Hatch Africa.

Mahlangu recently completed her master’s in Civil Engineering specialising in project and construction management and intends to pursue a PhD in the future. “A career in engineering wasn’t my first choice and only appealed to me in matric,” says Mahlangu. “I was fixated on creating model houses from cardboard boxes and once I learned about electricity, I fitted them with lights. The one day I found a bag of cement and built a model house. I realised my true passion was in creating things.”

Mahlangu combined this passion with her keen interest in science and design which then translated into civil engineering. Once she completed her degree at Wits University, she started work doing feasibility studies for railway infrastructure projects. Then she was given the opportunity to be resident engineer on a construction project.

“After a year I was appointed construction manager, at the age of 26, and I was responsible for managing a multi-disciplinary project,” she says. “Then I was appointed as an area project and construction manager and completed an MSc degree in Civil Engineering at Wits University. My next plan is to sharpen my skills in project and construction management and further pursue my PhD while continuing with my master’s research.” — Tamsin Oxford

Dr Sahba Nomvula Besharati (31)

Dr Sahba Nomvula Besharati (31)

Neuroscientist, Wits University and King’s College London

‘The passion I have from my work as a neuroscientist and for my family comes from the same source: my belief, as a Baha’i, that the main purpose of our lives is to be of service to others and work towards shaping an ever advancing society,” says Dr Sahba Nomvula Besharati.

As to what piqued her interest in neuroscience, the South African of Iranian descent says: “Growing up, I would say I had a bit of an identity crisis. I am an ‘Afro-Persian’ as I like to call it, being born and raised in South Africa, but having Persian/Iranian parents. However, I also spent a portion of my childhood years in Canada, still having a strong Canadian accent. So I always found it difficult to really place myself among my peers. Then naturally when studying psychology, and later neuropsychology, the study of ‘the self’ — also called personality, identity depending what discipline you are coming from — and how our environment shapes our sense of self, immediately captivated my interest.”

Besharati holds a postdoctoral fellowship in neuropsychology from Wits University’s psychology department. Her PhD was funded by a Commonwealth Scholarship and was awarded jointly by the University of Cape Town and the King’s College in the UK in 2015. Her current research is on the social-cognitive and neuroanatomical basis of self-awareness in infancy and childhood.

In 2017 she initiated “Brain Matters”, an interdisciplinary seminar series and collaboration of two research centres and two neuroscience societies presented by four South African academics and two international scholars. The final event in 2017 was an NRF-SAfm Science for Society lecture broadcast live on SAfm. The series has continued in 2018 with a lunchtime seminar and a one-day workshop on drawing the brain in order to understand neuroanatomy better.

“Academic interests aside, one of the main purposes of Brain Matters was to make the study of the brain accessible and interesting to the public. South Africa has one of the highest rates of neuropsychiatric disorders in the world. Everyone, regardless of their education can benefit from knowing a little more about the brain and how it shapes ourselves and society, as well as potential health implications.”— Carl Collison

Jeshika Ramchund, PrEng (32)

Jeshika Ramchund, PrEng (32)

Senior engineer, Developments, Bosch Projects (Pty) Ltd

Jeshika Ramchund is a professional civil engineer with a BSc in civil engineering from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She is a member of the FIDIC (International Federation of Consulting Engineers) Young Professionals Forum (YPF) Steering Committee and is the chairperson of the GAMA (Group of African Member Associations of FIDIC) Young Professionals Forum. She has been chairperson of the YPF, a council and board member for several years and is committed to enhancing the roles of young professionals in the consulting engineering space.

“My dad worked in construction and exposed me to his world from a young age and I was fascinated by engineering drawings and specifications,” says Ramchund. “What frustrated me was that at the construction stage, there wasn’t room for many creative or functional changes. I then learned about the built environment and knew that this is what I wanted as a career.”

Ramchund received a scholarship from the Construction Industry Education and Training Services for her studies and then took on a series of roles that allowed her to enhance her skills and reputation in the industry. Then she was given the opportunity to blend technical expertise with project management experience on a large water and sanitation project. “I knew that my career would take a different path at this point,” she says. “I have been at Bosch Projects for just over two years and gained a wealth of experience. On the academic front I would like to complete my master’s degree in environmental engineering and then extend my studies to a PhD. I believe that professional excellence can only be achieved when practical experience and academia meet minds.”

Ramchund has a passion for empowering women in the industry, helping them to grow and share their knowledge and experience with one another. “In consulting engineering our challenges are different and we lack an accessible mechanism for women to converse on the successes and challenges faced, coping mechanisms and a safe space to share ideas. My aim is to create that space and encourage these conversations.”— Tamsin Oxford

Safiyyah Iqbal (27)

Safiyyah Iqbal (27)

PhD candidate, Wits University

Citing her parents as her main driving force, Safiyyah Iqbal says her proudest moment was, “seeing my parents smile as I graduated for my BSc, BSc honours and MSc” degrees. “They have always believed in my capabilities and as they have been my role models, they have always influenced me to always give my very best,” she says.

Giving her very best has certainly seen the 27-year-old reaping the rewards. Currently a PhD student at the Wits University Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI), Iqbal completed an undergraduate degree in 2012, majoring in animal, plant and environmental sciences.

“I then furthered my studies by completing my BSc honours in 2013 and MSc degree in 2014 in palaeontology at ESI, where my research was the first quantitative study on the forelimb of a non-mammalia form cynodont, thrinaxodon liorhinus. At present, I am finalising my PhD, which features a multidisciplinary approach that is the first in this field by combining palaeontology and mechanical engineering through emphasising the application of finite elements analyses in studying the functional morphology of fossils,” she says.

Not only a regular participant at conferences (like the Imaging with Radiation: 1st South African Biennial Conference, Palaeontological Society of Southern Africa’s Biennial Meeting and the African Light Source conference and workshop held in Grenoble, France), Iqbal is also passionate about ESI’s outreach programmes, Sci-Bono and Yebo Gogga. These programmes, she explains, “allow fellow scientists to be aware of the research that ESI provides in the day and age of new technologies”.

Her hard work and passion are made remarkable given that, as she concedes, “my journey to where I am today was faced with life challenges”.

But, adds the devout Muslim: “Having full faith and trust in The Almighty — as well as having a wonderful support system from my parents, friends, and colleagues — made each hurdle a lot easier to overcome.”

And it is this support she is determined to keep paying forward. “Through what I do, I want to demonstrate by leading an example. As a Muslim female scientist I hope to inspire and motivate other Muslims and females to never give up because of what society says and to persevere their goals in life.” — Carl Collison

Kgomotso Setlhapelo (33)

Kgomotso Setlhapelo (33)

Chief engineer (telecommunications technology & support), Eskom

Kgomotso Setlhapelo’s upbringing has shaped the person he is today. When Krugersdorp Town School rejected him several times due to the quota system of the 1990s, he and his father, who had spent a period in exile under apartheid, challenged the school’s reasoning that he did not have aptitude to progress there. When he eventually gained admission, he ended up receiving an award for academic diligence.

Later, when the University of Pretoria granted him acceptance into its electronic engineering programme, it was upon the condition that he completed his degree in the record time of four years, which he managed to accomplish.
Setlhapelo is a chief engineer at Eskom. His main role is to provide telecommunications leadership, solutions and support, particularly for optical and microwave radio communications. He is also involved in the development of technology solutions through compiling technology standards and specifications, technical evaluation of proposed technology, network design and engineering and link and/or network failure investigation.

He is also the chairperson of the Telecommunications Study Committee of Eskom’s Steering Committee of Technologies, which provides operational telecommunications technology direction, solutions and standardisation for Eskom’s present and future smart grid. He also serves on an operations investment committee, whose role is to grant investment approval for projects in Eskom telecommunications.

Outside of Eskom, he is a member of the South African Institute of Electrical Engineering (SAIEE) Council, the SAIEE Central Gauteng Centre Committee (SAIEE CGC) and is the newly elected chairperson of the SAIEE Electronics and Software section. Last year, he was awarded the 2017 SAIEE Keith Plowden Young Achiever of the Year award, due to his many contributions to the SAIEE CGC. These included volunteering to lead the corporate social investment initiative of the centre, the main goal of which was to encourage learners at disadvantaged schools in Ekurhuleni to take up mathematics and science as subjects and electrical engineering as a profession.

In his free time, Setlhapelo provides tuition at no charge to mathematics and physical science high school learners in Ekurhuleni. “With the Fourth Industrial Revolution upon us, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem)-based skills and professions are a non-negotiable. To be competitive in the greater world economy, South Africa needs to increase the number of these scarce and critical skills,” he says.

“It is incumbent on Stem practitioners to assist in reversing the systemic and systematic discriminatory legacy of apartheid that only gave opportunities, particularly in Stem, to the minority.” — Fatima Asmal

Ruby-Anne Birin (23)

Ruby-Anne Birin (23)

Archaeologist and Optical Stimulated Luminescence Dating specialist, Wits University

“When I was 17, I went to Oxford on a programme designed for high school children. There I studied classical civilisations and was exposed to archaeology properly, for the first time. This trip shaped the way I saw the world and defined much of what I would accomplish in the coming years, both within academics and with regards to giving back to society.”

So says Ruby-Anne Birin, the archaeologist and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating specialist. OSL is a scarce skill in South Africa, with the 23-year-old being one of fewer than five such scientists in the country.
Birin has provided the first set of scientific dates for the occupation of the Bokoni settlement in Mpumalanga. The settlement is the only place in South Africa — and one of the few in Africa — where people used stonewalled terraces for agricultural purposes. The archaeology of Bokoni makes a significant contribution to an understanding of the complexity of pre-colonial farming in Africa. Stonewalled, terraced agricultural sites are significant because they speak to innovative approaches to farming and to long-term relationships with the land. This challenges perceived notions of African farming as unsustainable and constantly shifting.

Birin was also guide and coordinator of the education programmes at Wits University’s Origins Centre which focuses on Southern African archaeology. She assisted in cataloguing the department’s archaeological collection, including online digitising of the collections. Being accepted to Oxford University to read for a master’s degree in Archaeology is, she says, one of the proudest moments of her life.

“Archaeology gives us the ability to understand the lives of everyday people in the past — not just the wealthy and elite,” she says. “It can tell the story of people who did not write their histories. By doing this we give a voice to those who have been robbed of their rightful place in the history books. It problematises how we, as a society, changed and came to be. It allows for those whose stories have only been told by the victor to regain dignity. This is of great relevance in a country where so many people’s stories have been forgotten, manipulated and politicised for personal and selfish gains.” — Carl Collison

Dr Aletta Esterhuyse Millen (34)

Dr Aletta Esterhuyse Millen (34)

Associate professor in Physiology, Wits University

Four years after obtaining her PhD, Dr Aletta Millen was promoted to associate professor in physiology at Wits University, and has established herself as a highly motivated and driven scientist. Millen has established a unique study in which she is elucidating the mechanisms whereby inflammation causes heart diseases, and thus improves the risk stratification and prevention of cardiovascular diseases in people with rheumatoid arthritis — a condition which is very hard to manage. “From a young age I was very intrigued with how the human body works, especially understanding the altered physiology in disease states,” she says. “Being able to make a difference in the knowledge around non-communicable diseases in South Africa through my work is an added bonus.”

After growing up in Rawsonville, a small town in the Breede River Valley in the Western Cape, Millen studied at Stellenbosch University until the end of her MSc degree in 2010, then she moved to Johannesburg. Millen is passionate about health and wellbeing and was active during her years at Stellenbosch in the university’s netball first team as well as in the provincial and regional netball team — “the netball equivalent of the Stormers rugby team.”

Millen has received several competitive grants for her research, has numerous publications in international journals and is currently mentoring a number of students. Besides her professional career, she manages a household, raises a two-year-old daughter and actively participates in the management of her husband’s biokinetics practice.

Millen is passionate about correcting disparities in health care in our country. “There need to be strategies to bridge the gap between state and private healthcare and the cost of healthcare (especially private healthcare), the way in which state-owned facilities are managed and the way in which these hospitals operate. I think educating people not only in healthcare but also healthcare management needs to be addressed.” — Aaisha Dadi Patel

Pule Segale (32)

Pule Segale (32)

Civil engineer and construction site manager, Mainstream Renewable Power

“I get up in the morning because I want to realise my full potential. I am driven to create a legacy that can live beyond my years. I believe in sustainable development and have a strong desire to contribute to the energy sector,” says Pule Segale.

Through successfully delivering two wind energy projects in South Africa and recently directing his energy to the broader African energy market — supporting and leading Mainstream Renewable Power’s asset delivery mandate to develop and construct renewable energy projects under the “electrifying Africa” strategy — he is certainly making sure his desire to contribute to the energy sector is realised.

Having worked in the built environment, Segale’s skills are critical in providing access to energy, building infrastructure and making cities more inclusive. An alumnus of the Brightest Young Minds (BYM) organisation (after being selected as one of the 100 young leaders in Africa to attend the BYM summit in 2016) Segale has also been recognised as a Future Energy Leader by the World Energy Council and is part of the FEL-100 program that is designed to inspire, grow and develop the world’s energy leaders of tomorrow.

“This was one of my proudest moments thus far,” he says, adding that the recognition “has encouraged me to do more in the energy space”.

Segale received the inaugural Youth Energy Leadership Award in 2017 from the South African National Energy Association and was nominated for the Outstanding Contribution Award (Youth Leader) in 2018 by African Utility Week. He holds a BSc in engineering and is completing an MSc in project management, both from the University of Cape Town.

“I am constantly challenging myself to better contribute to the society in which I live and would like to be a change agent as well as position myself as an advisor to the current officials in order to tackle the challenges related to energy poverty and economic development,” he says, adding, “My primary aim is to improve the quality of life for ordinary people by providing access to clean, renewable energy.”— Carl Collison

Apiwe Hotele (26)

Apiwe Hotele joined the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (Sarao) in 2015 as a junior science processing developer, and is now permanently employed there as a technology commercialisation specialist. Hotele holds a BSc in Computer Science and Biochemistry cum laude from the University of Fort Hare and a master’s in Computer Engineering from the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Hotele is passionate about science education as well as about creating awareness of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) industry; she wants to motivate students from previously disadvantaged communities to pursue careers in maths and science. Most of her programmes and initiatives are centered around Stem. In 2016 Hotele represented women in science at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers UCT branch, where she initiated #BreakingTheStereotype, an annual event focused on motivating young women engineers studying at the institution.

“Women are often underrepresented in the fields of engineering, both in academia and in the profession of engineering. A lot of them in this field are still unsure of whether they are suitable for this field, with some of them quitting and pursuing other careers. For this reason, we aim to create a platform where women engineers at UCT are able to interact with others in the industry through a panel discussion,” says Hotele.

She is the Western Cape branch co-ordinator for the International Council of Systems Engineers South Africa and is one of the evaluators for the annual Greatest Young Systems Engineer of the Year Challenge, which fosters interest, insight and skills in systems engineering in young South African engineers.

She initiated the iMbasa internship programme together with the Science Data Processing Team at Sarao to motivate students from disadvantaged communities to pursue careers in maths and science and to provide academic and financial support to these students.

Hotele is also the founder of Enlighten, an online tutoring application that offers remote tutoring services to disadvantaged communities in maths and science for grades eight to 12. “After receiving amazing results from the iMbasa programme I wanted to expand and be able to reach rural areas. The best way to achieve this is through technology, hence the development of the app. There is so much potential in rural areas that needs equal opportunity and resources as urban areas. It is our responsibility as people who come from rural areas to give back to these communities and to ensure that there is growth,” she says. The app is under development. — Aaisha Dadi Patel

Vusani Mandiwana (32)

Vusani Mandiwana (32)

PhD research scientist, CSIR

Vusani Mandiwana was born and raised in the rural village of Ha-Mandiwana, Nzhelele, Limpopo and is a PhD (Pharmaceutics) research candidate as well as being one of the youngest women deputy chairpersons of the Gauteng Alumni Chapter Committee for the University of Venda. She is involved in a project which addresses the shortfalls in the diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer.

She mentors high school students who wish to pursue careers in the area of science, technology and engineering. Guiding people to become the best version of themselves is key to her work. She believes in honing the full individual and assists in improving the image of individuals to be aligned with their personal style and goals — she believes in matching the outside with the inside.

The passionate mom was nominated as one of the best MSc students for the CSIR-MSM Excellence Awards in 2014 and prides herself on mirroring the characteristics she wants her sons to encompass one day.

The loss of her husband in a car accident four years turned her world upside down. Following his death she decided to live her life and not question her purpose after being stuck in a comfort zone. She started travelling, becoming involved in community projects, helping her children and is dedicating her energy to things that matter the most for her. Success, she has come to understand, is relative for everyone. Contentment and happiness while helping others is key for her, striking a balance with things she values most.

She is inspired by people who defy the norm and follow their passion despite the odds being stacked against them. This gives her hope when times are tough. She is also revived by walks in nature and by reading.
Mandiwana is working on her legacy to create a life coaching school where she wants to empower women of all ages. This will work hand-in-hand with her image consultancy, helping to build confidence in young South Africans. — Leigh Wils

Phylis Makurunje (31)

Phylis Makurunje (31)

PhD student, Wits University

Looking back at her years growing up, Phylis Makurunje describes herself as “this odd girl who made wire cars”.
“A lot of people around me took me so seriously that parents in my neighbourhood would come to my mother to ask for me to make wire cars for their kids. One day, I saw an older boy who had made a helicopter which rolled on wheels, and I said to myself, ‘I want to make a helicopter too’. My career path since then did not take a straight line; I startlingly leaped back into my dream when I got the opportunity to study aerospace materials at the University of the Witwatersrand,” says the 31-year-old.

A PhD candidate under the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials at Wits University, Makurunje specialises in ultra-high temperature composites (UHTCs) for rockets and future hypersonic space aeroplanes which can travel across continents in just one hour. Two patent applications have been submitted for her inventions in the past year. In May 2017, she was awarded the Prof. S Luyckx award by Wits University for “making an outstanding contribution to the field of hard metals and powder metallurgy”.

A passionate public speaker, Makurunje was also a finalist in the 2017 Famelab South Africa competition.
She has worked with renowned science communicators like Robert Inglis of Jive Media and Quentin Cooper of the British Broadcasting Corporation and was one of the guest speakers at the 2017 SAASTA (South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement) National Olympiad Awards ceremony. In August 2017 she was invited to participate in department of science and technology’s dialogue with minister Naledi Pandor on women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.

Makurunje also sits on the President’s Council of Student Advisors of the American Ceramic Society, and serves on the Space Generation Advisory Council. She has also been chosen as a delegate at the United Nations 21st session of the Committee on Sciences and Technology for Development focusing on space technologies and space security.
“A lot people think that outer space is all about exploration, walking on the moon and conquering Mars,” she says. “But space technologies have a far-reaching impact in telecommunications, transportation, public health, food security and natural disaster preparedness. The future belongs to those who are leveraging space technologies to address the challenges in our communities.” — Carl Collison

Aviwe Matiwane (31)

Aviwe Matiwane (31)

Research associate, Albany Museum and PhD candidate, Rhodes University

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

Yashodani Pillay (28)

Yashodani Pillay (28)

PhD candidate, UKZN

Yashodani Pillay believes in the power of compassion and the constant desire to improve herself and those around her gives her purpose. She defines herself through her connection to others and how they impact each other. This became clear after personal circumstances solidified her decision to dedicate her life to the health and education sector.

The Durban-born leader is currently completing the final year of her PhD in Medical Sciences with a specific focus on toxicology and molecular biology. “I really enjoy the innovation, discovery process and social impacts of science,” she says. She has worked with organisations in health and education for both government and international communities, including the United Nations Association for Human Values in 2012. The experience helped her to better understand the specific needs and interventions required to tackle some of the most dire situations faced by many vulnerable people in society. It ultimately contributed to her interest in public health, the development of effective counteractive methods and the integral role of science and education in developing society as a whole.

She notes that some of her career highlights include presenting her work abroad, working with others and mentoring within the science and education sector. “Our lab has a strong culture of paying it forward in terms of training, support and helping others where you can, and I’ve learnt from and been able to share in this capacity.”

Pillay admits that she stands on the shoulders of giants near and dear to her heart. Her mother and aunt serve as powerful female figures in her life, always pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Their accomplishments and dedication to social justice issues as well as their compassion influenced her from a young age.

Above all, she is a strong advocate of doing one’s best. She believes one can never know what you can do if you don’t give it your all. — Leigh Wils

Muthumuni Managa (30)

Muthumuni Managa (30)

PhD candidate, Rhodes University

Growing up in the rural Venda village of Ha-Rabali, Muthumuni Managa says she “attended schools without science laboratories; in communities where cancer patients died more from lack of knowledge than cancer itself”.

But, she adds: “My ultimate influence, however, was when I personally became affected by cancer: my mother was diagnosed with cancer during my undergraduate studies. At that moment, I took a conscious decision to further my studies to PhD level, with cancer research as a focus.”

A Pearson Young Foundation Fellow, Managa holds an MSc degree and recently completed her research for a PhD in Chemistry at Rhodes University. Her accolades include the DST/MINTEK Annual NIC Awards (in 2012 and 2017) and the Lelona Fufu Prize. She is also the founder of Rhodes University’s Vhavenda Society, which she has chaired since 2014.

She is also the owner of Grahamstown’s Mu2’s Kitchen, a kasi-style restaurant which serves up affordable township cuisine. Her passion for community-building saw her scooping the 2010 and 2015 Rhodes Award for Community Engagement. She was also a laboratory manager at the Rhodes Centre for Nanotechnology Innovation from 2015 to 2017, and is currently mentoring honours and MSc students through their research.

“I grew up within a society challenged by a paucity of positive role models, where a girl child’s future meant pregnancy, dropout, and if lucky, an unstable marriage,” she says. “I vowed to myself that I was going to defy this, and become an agent of change.

“Being a young scientist, many students look up to you since you are demystifying the stereotype that science is hard. Being involved in Scifest Africa as a workshop facilitator, I was humbled by primary and high school learners who approached me after my sessions and said, ‘I want to study science and bring change to my country.’ That, to me, is an indication that young learners from underprivileged backgrounds gain confidence by seeing me, and talking to them about something they previously thought was too far-reached. As young South Africans we need to create opportunities for ourselves, and for others, work hard in driving the economy of this county in whichever career path we embark on. There is nothing impossible when you put your mind to it.” — Carl Collison

Bonisile Luthuli (27)

Bonisile Luthuli (27)

PhD student, Africa Health Research Institute

There are people who spend their lives changing the world for the better on the macro scale, and then there are people like Bonisile Luthuli who are changing it on the micro scale. Luthuli is studying her PhD in medical microbiology at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban and her bodies of research are all focused on overcoming debilitating diseases.

Luthuli’s master’s saw her develop a microdialyser to quickly and effectively identify drug-resistant TB, a device that was so small and effective — it can perform up to 120 TB tests at a time — that it was patented and published in PLoS One. It was the first international patent filed for an integrated microfluidic device developed in Africa. Today, Luthuli is researching HIV-transmitted/founder viruses to help inform future prevention efforts aimed at eradicating HIV and Aids.

But her journey was not an easy one. “We had no library and only a few books at school,” says Luthuli. “When I came to university to study biochemistry I had never touched a computer or looked down a microscope. But these things should never stop the commitment to achieve and believe in yourself.”

Growing up in Nyanyadu, near Dundee, Luthuli saw how badly HIV and Aids affected people, many only a few years older dying from the disease. She knew that there was an urgent need to end the HIV epidemic and sought out a career path that would allow her to be a part of this mission.

“I plan to apply my intelligence, along with the knowledge and skills gained from my training, to implementing innovative approaches to end HIV and Aids,” she says. “I would also like to solve other societal ills and provide opportunities for impoverished communities to increase quality of life, especially in rural settings.” — Tamsin Oxford

Dr Zamantungwa Khumalo (30)

Dr Zamantungwa Khumalo (30)

Medical scientist, National Institute of Communicable Diseases

Dr Zamantungwa Khumalo is passionate about science, research, youth and rural development and is inspired by passionate, hard-working people who go the extra mile to assist others in their development.

She is a medical scientist at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases and holds a PhD in Veterinary Science from the University of Pretoria. Khumalo was awarded the Best PhD Student award from the Department of Veterinary Tropical Diseases and elected as a candidate for the prestigious Angela Davies-Russel Award in 2017 under the Parasitological Society of South Africa. She also serves as an external examiner of a master’s student from the North-West University.

She is the founder and chairperson of I am a Future Leader Youth Development Programme, a non-profit organisation. It aims to improve the lives of others through educational development and leadership programmes specifically targeted at high school learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. She is also part of the Apprentices Women Leadership, which since 2016 has recognised top matric learners and community builders in Bergville.
Overcoming her own limitations and fully believing in herself is something she admits takes time. Looking at past achievements and future goals help her stay on course when times are rough.

She aims to build a national career hub. Many young people do not know what career to choose or lack the tools and technology to realise it. Creating accessible opportunities for others is key for her. “The building will be built in a sense that all the entrances to the building represent the actual university. This is an idea I have in mind.
“Apart from my passions, what keeps me going is my five-year-old daughter Lubambo. She is the reason I want to do better in life and live a life that defies mediocrity.” — Leigh Wils

Neil Thomas Stacey (31)

Neil Thomas Stacey (31)

Postdoctoral researcher, Unisa

Neil Thomas Stacey sees his “distrust of authority and semblance of self-reliance” as essential ingredients to his success. “Those are rare traits in academia, and surprisingly valuable,” says the 31-year-old. “Most scientists have a strong herd instinct, so a willingness to challenge the status quo and break new ground has led me to explore exciting new technologies and areas of research.

“I was gifted with just enough stroppiness to claim that major global industries are doing everything wrong and that I can do better, and I credit my success entirely to that.”

This stroppiness has certainly come in handy, with the Unisa-based scientist making remarkable strides in solving some of mankind’s biggest problems. Earlier this year he developed a technology that the Financial Mail described as having the potential to “reduce global water usage drastically”. Two of Stacey’s research articles, published in international scientific journals, have shown that more than 90% of the water used in agriculture is lost to evaporation. And since 70% of global water usage is for agriculture, those evaporative losses exceed all other forms of water usage put together.

Stacey’s proposed solution? To use carbon dioxide enrichment to decrease the flow of air needed to supply enough of the crucial carbon, thereby cutting down evaporation and potentially reducing water usage to a fraction of present levels.

In 2016, he was lead author of an article in the Energy and Fuels journal demonstrating a highly efficient new method of producing bioethanol for fuel use with energy savings of as much as 40% compared to conventional processes. Stacey also holds a patent on the technology at Wits University, and remains the technical representative for the project to commercialise it.

His latest line of research involves replacing the coal used in iron ore reduction with environmentally-friendly alternatives including biomass and waste plastics. He has been invited to speak on that technology at major international conferences and sees it as an important step in keeping waste plastic out of the environment.
As to what continues to drive him, the young scientist says: “I am mostly motivated by curiosity. I have a compulsion for figuring out how things work and solving problems. Being able to turn that curiosity to the purpose of fighting off our extinction is daunting, but also exhilarating.” — Carl Collison

Dr Busisani Lembede (29)

Dr Busisani Lembede (29)

Lecturer, Wits University

It seems South Africa is packed full of intellectual talent; minds that are set to help change the world for the better and redefine the South African future. One of these minds belongs to Busisani Lembede, a PhD graduate and lecturer with six articles already published in peer reviewed journals. Lembede focuses his research on metabolic diseases, natural products that can prevent disease and animal nutrition.

“Growing up on the dusty roads of an informal settlement to the south of Johannesburg, I always dreamed of becoming a doctor or a pharmacist,” says Lembede. “I missed the opportunity to study pharmacy so I then enrolled for a bachelor of health science which is where I discovered physiology and liked it. I then pursued my honours in physiology, went on to complete my master’s of Science Medicine and my doctoral degree by 2017.”

While he was studying for his master’s, Lembede was appointed as an associate lecturer at Wits University’s school of Physiology and was promoted to lecturer in 2017. His achievements are almost legendary, especially in light of the journey he undertook to get where he is.

“My late grandmother Alzina Lembede raised me — she never had the opportunity to get any kind of formal education and sacrificed a lot for me,” he says. “With the R1 100 monthly pension she received she always made sure I was well fed and able to go to school. I used to think she was too strict, but looking back I realise she saved me from a lot of bad influences that could have led to my demise.” Lembede’s work ethic was also inspired by his mother who always did her best to provide for him when she could, selflessly. He is taking the legacy given him by his family into a busy future as he intends on growing his research footprint while trying to drive the commercialisation of research science.

“The profits generated from commercialising research science will be reinvested back into research and also be used to fund the training and development of more research-scientists in South Africa. In doing this I would be contributing to solving two pertinent issues; firstly the shortage of research funds and secondly the lack or inaccessibility of tertiary education funding.” — Tamsin Oxford

Khanyisile Kgoadi (32)

Khanyisile Kgoadi (32)

Clinical science and immunology PhD student, UCT

Khanyisile Kgoadi wanted to be a medical doctor who finds a cure for HIV because there were, and still are, a lot of people in South Africa affected and infected by it.

“I am a very compassionate and empathetic person, and the stigma around HIV, and the narrative around it being a so-called death sentence made me interested in working towards restoring the dignity and the self-esteem of people with it.”

Growing up in Mofolo South, Soweto, meant that she and her peers had limited exposure to the many paths that can lead one to be a scientist, but she finally realised that being a doctor is not the only way that one can work towards saving lives. Kgoadi’s research interests are related to TB, meningitis and how bacteria are spread among people, as well as the gaps that exist in the diagnosis-to-treatment value chain.

South Africa has one of the highest TB rates in the world; people are still dying from it because TB preventative measures are not fully in place, and patients often develop resistance because they default on their medicines.
“As a young female scientist in a male-dominated world I have had to work harder, and I am proud of the opportunities that I have grabbed. I am involved in tutoring high school students in Gugulethu, black students who do not have teachers and are having their development slanted by conditions out of their control.”

Through mentorship she hopes to instil a sense of confidence in her students, so that they do not think twice about applying to the best universities in the country and the world. Kgoadi hopes to open her own HIV/TB co-infection lab in South Africa someday soon. — Nomonde Ndwalaza

Neo Hutiri (30)

Neo Hutiri (30)

Founder, Technovera

“Coming from engineering background and having worked in an automation space has definitely influenced the kind of technologies that Technovera has developed,” says Neo Hutiri. “We are constantly asking questions on the role of technology and how it can help us shape some of the most challenging issues in healthcare.”

The company’s constant questioning led to it developing Pelebox Smart Lockers, a smart locker system that enables patients to collect their repeat chronic medication in under two minutes. It’s a welcome respite for patients usually burdened with having to wait hours in queues at public health facilities.

A University of Cape Town electrical engineering graduate, Hutiri worked as an automation engineer at ArcelorMittal SA before taking up an operations management role as a technical assistant to the company’s COO while simultaneously completing a master’s in engineering at Wits University. He later ventured into the technology startup ecosystem in Johannesburg and founded Technovera, a technology start-up developing smart solutions. He has a passion for nurturing the entrepreneurial culture, is always up for a challenge and is heavily invested in the development and adoption of smart technologies in the African healthcare space.

“My career has been great, from engineer to operations to social entrepreneurship. I feel that I have been able to walk a path that leverages my strengths to achieve social impact for my communities. The fact that we have used all the technical knowledge developed over years to come up with a solution that is simple and easy to use has been rewarding,” says the 30-year-old.

As to what his most rewarding moment thus far has been, Hutiri says, “When we finished installing the first locker in Mamelodi and we had the first patient using our invention. That look in the patient’s eyes when using the Pelebox Smart locker for the first time was one of the most rewarding moments of my journey.”

It is moments such as these that continue to drive Hutiri to excel and make a difference. “I am driven by my desire to contribute to shaping a future that I know is possible for Africans. I am driven by my curiosity and the power that lives within people to shape and create.” — Carl Collison

Charles Faul (27)

Charles Faul (27)

Founder and chief executive, Akili Labs and NOOTRO

What do you get when you cross biotechnology with computer science? Charles Faul, a young entrepreneur, the founder of Akili Labs and NOOTRO and a master’s student at the Biotechnology Innovation Centre at Rhodes University. He built the award-winning FieldLab — a low-cost lab-in-a-box that provides commonly used molecular biology tools in the field — and hopes that one day it will be used in remote areas globally, even in conflict zones.

“I looked towards the future and I saw two emerging fields that have the power to change the world: computer science and biotechnology,” says Faul. “The combination is one of the industries that will revolutionise the world in ways never seen before, changing medical science, renewable energy and more. I decided to gain a working understanding of computer science and physics then combined it with a solid grounding in data handling and a specialisation in biotechnology.”

It was a long journey with a lot of hard work, but Faul has had incredible support from his family and academic supervisors. For him, his parents have always been supportive and encouraging, always helping him to achieve his vision. With this type of support network it’s hardly surprising that Faul has big plans for the future.

“I want to grow and develop the technology we’re working on and revolutionise medical diagnostics with a parallel aim of establishing an R&D biotechnology firm in South Africa,” he says. “I want to assist scientists in Africa with bringing solutions to real world problems into the market with a focus on what’s needed, not what’s wanted.” — Tamsin Oxford

Lebogang Mahlare (30)

Lebogang Mahlare (30)

Researcher, Stern Business School

Mpumalanga-born Lebogang Mahlare is passionate about technology and its importance in African development. Her decision to do a master’s in New York was influenced fundamentally by a desire for international exposure.
“As South Africans we are underexposed to other parts of the continent; my friend, who had studied overseas, had wonderful things to say about the study abroad experience.”

Despite being a top maths scholar during her schooling, the decision to study engineering happened serendipitously. “I remember not being too sure what I wanted to study at varsity, so friend of mine and I put my three choices — law, engineering and actuarial sciences — into a hat. I literally picked engineering from a hat.”

After completing her BSc degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Cape Town Mahlare applied to and was accepted for an MSc programme in urban systems engineering at New York University on an Oppenheimer Memorial Trust Scholarship.

“My experience also reasserted to me that South Africa has strong institutions that can easily compete with NYU, because my formative years at UCT were solid enough to ensure that I could easily thrive in this new context. We are doing something right ko hae and we need to protect it and ensure it stays longer and can spread to more people. It’s really just the difference of prestige.”

She is also a former director of a nongovernmental organisation called Women in Engineering, and her involvement in it is informed by how there continues to be a mental block for women in engineering when it comes to competing with men. “The Stem field requires a lot of transformation, and we need to understand why the sector needs women and what that benefit could be. Ultimately, diversity fosters the best of what is achievable.”

Mahlare’s master’s thesis research explored how renewable energy mini-grid technology can reduce energy poverty in Africa through electrifying rural communities. She has also recently worked at the World Bank Group’s
International Finance Corporation.

She is excited about existing in an era where the passing of time has meant the redefinition of societal values. “I am motivated by the radical shift in the position of women, with campaigns ranging from #MeToo to the gender wage gap. It allows us to unpack our values, because women are now occupying and transforming these spaces.” — Nomonde Ndwalaza

Ntsako Mgiba (23)

Ntsako Mgiba (23)

Co-founder and CEO, Jonga Systems

“I’ve always been a curious kid, fascinated by technology, but I was born in a community that didn’t have the resources to nurture that desire to learn more,” says Ntsako Mgiba. “So when my parents decided to move to Johannesburg and enrolled my brothers and I in Model C schools, I was afforded the opportunity to explore those curiosities.”

The 23-year-old is the co-founder and CEO of Jonga, a security system for low-income areas. Following a personal encounter with burglary, Mgiba fused his training in mechatronic engineering and interest in entrepreneurship to “restore dignity, security and peace of mind to communities that are often seen as perpetrators of violence in South Africa”.

“I believe my career as a social entrepreneur has a direct impact on society. At Jonga we develop low cost, community-based home monitoring solutions for low income communities. We’re targeting them specifically because for far too long affordability has been a major barrier for them accessing security so they’re a largely underserved market. Through providing our product I hope that communities will become empowered to come together and form neighbourhood watches that protect themselves,” he says.

Currently pursuing a master’s degree in Computer Science at UCT as a Mandela Rhodes scholar, Mgiba clinched the first prize in numerous entrepreneurship challenges on- and off-campus. The Jonga team were winners in the 2017 edition of the Santam Safety Ideas competition and Mgiba recently shared this innovative South African product on the Web Summit stage in Lisbon, Portugal.

Mgiba’s successes are, he says, driven by his passion for people. “I would always be drawn towards leadership positions and take every opportunity that I could find that allowed me to interact with other people. I wanted to always find a way to bring those two passions together. Through running a social enterprise that uses technology to empower communities I’ve managed to find that balance,” he says.

“What also drives me into action is knowing that there are people who are completely vulnerable to crime and that there is nothing they can do about it because current security solutions are too expensive. I believe this to be a great injustice as everyone has a right to safety and security.” — Carl Collison

Dr Alveera Singh (34)

Dr Alveera Singh (34)

Postdoctoral research fellow, Africa Health Research Institute

AHRI (Africa Health Research Institute) and SANTHE (Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence) postdoctoral research fellow Alveera Singh is a young woman whose research on infectious diseases in South Africa is making its mark.

“I am passionate about research, especially in work that will help to develop new treatment strategies for infectious diseases such as TB and HIV,” says Singh. “These terrible diseases remain a huge problem globally, and are decimating communities in South Africa. Through my education and training, I feel research is the best way I can use my energy in the fight against them.”

Singh, who received her PhD in Applied Science from the Durban University of Technology (DUT) in 2016, always knew what her path was going to be. “For me, a scientific career was always on the cards. I knew early in life that I wanted to make a difference to the lives of people affected with infectious diseases,” she says.

Her PhD research examines compounds in local medicinal plants that are able to kill different strains of the bacterium that causes TB, highlights the value of traditional knowledge and provides potential new tools in the fight against this deadly pandemic. Singh’s current research looks at understanding the role of certain immune cells during HIV infection, which she hopes will lead to the development of new treatment strategies.

Singh has secured funding support from esteemed organisations such as the National Research Foundation, the Technology Innovation Agency and SANTHE. She has co-authored several peer-reviewed publications in international journals such as the Journal of Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics, Tropical Biomedicine, and the African Journal of Biotechnology. She has also been an invited speaker at numerous local and international conferences.

Her 10-year plan is to become a leader in HIV and TB basic scientific research and assist in training the next generation of South African scientists. “For me, education forms the backbone of a nation; good education would go a long way to ensuring the success of all South Africans.” — Aaisha Dadi Patel

Lungile Hlatshwayo (28)

Lungile Hlatshwayo (28)

Edison engineering programme candidate, General Electric

Lungile Hlatshwayo is the first African in General Electric Transport to be in the Thomas Edison development programme. This opportunity did not just fall into her lap, but came about as a result of hard work, a proven track record of consistent excellence, and most importantly, a desire to chart her own development trajectory and join a global programme that before her, was out of reach to Africans.

Born, bred and buttered in Soweto, she recalls being an inventive and curious child who was reading newspapers by the age of six. Being one of the most hardworking children at her school exposed to opportunities to represent her school at debating championships and education expos. She spent her grade 11 year in Australia on a study exchange programme, which she says was a most formative and life-changing experience.

“I remember being so nervous when I arrived, but by the time I had left I was in my element at that school; I had even taught everyone how to sing Naba Abantu Bayasibiza!”. Hlatshwayo chose mechanical engineering as a university choice due to the diversity of options it opens up.

Today her engineering job entails working in the power space with turbines, testing their systems and coming up with concepts and designs. As a woman in Stem who finds herself outnumbered in almost every space, she has had to learn not to take things personally and keep focused on the end goal.

“We rear women to grow up thinking that construction and mining is tough, where you go to interviews and are asked if you are willing to get your nails dirty, but no one asks men this question.”

Despite this, she is excited about being a woman who gets to exist in 2018, in light of our heavy past as a nation. “I like the fact that we are very woke as a generation; I like that if I feel my skills are not being adequately utilised, I can speak up, ask for more and change things.”— Nomonde Ndwalaza

Ntwanano Sipho Mapfumari (26)

Ntwanano Sipho Mapfumari (26)

Part-time lecturer and PhD candidate, Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University

A Kwame Nkrumah quote — “Those who would judge us merely by the heights we have achieved would do well to remember the depths from which we started” — is one Ntwanano Sipho Mapfumari keeps on his mind all the time.

At just 26, Mapfumari has reached some heady heights. Having completed his MSc in Biochemistry looking into the effects of geographical location on the phytochemical composition of the leaves of senna italica collected from four districts across Limpopo, he is now working on his PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences. Mapfumari is also the co-founder of the educational organization ThinkBig39 and the founder of the entertainment organisation SMU Got Talent and the Progressive African Socialist Students Organisation. In addition to being a part-time lecturer and mentor to postgraduate students, he is also an executive member of the SMU-Medunsa Alumni Association.

It is Mapfumari’s humble roots, the “depths from which he came” which influenced where he is today. “I grew up in the deep rural areas of Limpopo, so I used to spend a lot of time in the mountains, where I was herding goats. It was there that I got to notice that a lot of the indigenous knowledge practitioners used nature to treat their patients. Over time, I got to use a number of nature-based medicines. In 2007, I moved to Phalaborwa to stay with my uncle. There I got to a computer for the first time in 2008.”

In 2009, he was a finalist in the national in the Eskom Science Expo for Young Scientists and participated in a leadership training programme put together by the Phalaborwa-based foundation, Protec. “There I was taught that the best leaders are those who serve their community and leave an everlasting mark on the hearts of the people they serve.”

Serving his community and leaving an indelible mark on the world is precisely what Mapfumari aims to do.

“From time immemorial, plants have been relied on for the treatment of different diseases and infections by different tribes across the continent and the globe as a whole. However, over time, with the advent of new technology, these are neglected and no longer trusted. My career aims to change this by bringing back trust of these natural sources of medication. Who knows, maybe the cure to cancer and HIV and AIDS is hiding there.” — Carl Collison

Dr Lusisizwe Kwezi (33)

Dr Lusisizwe Kwezi (33)

Senior research scientist, CSIR

As a youngster, Lusisizwe Kwezi was a reclusive child, and that gave him the chance to be inventive and imaginative. His childhood in the Eastern Cape was backgrounded by lots of books as his mom was an avid reader, while his dad was an English and natural sciences teacher.

“I have always had a natural inclination towards science and biology; they made sense in my brain. I actually had to fight the dominant and well-meaning expectation that I was going to be a doctor, with my grandmother prophesying to my grandfather that ‘this young one will grow up to be a doctor and he will inject us with medicine when we are sick.’”

While studying biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape Kwezi had his outstanding honours project upgraded to a PhD without him having to do a master’s degree. This was due to the massive academic impact of the work that he was doing on the science community.

At the CSIR, he is involved in making proteins for human health with the aim of developing local manufacturing processes so that they are made more cheaply. He is also involved in work that is exploring using South Africa’s biodiversity to develop products that can be commercialised for human health and biotechnology.

Kwezi is also an academic supervisor and this role is continually teaching him the importance of transferable soft skills. “It is important to instil confidence in students that lets them know when they are doing brilliantly and when they can do better. Science is about trial and error and sometimes failure can be debilitating.” He is also excited at how brilliant South Africans are and the tenacity they have — not just in science, but across many industries. — Nomonde Ndwalaza

Madichaba Chelopo-Mgobozi (30)

Madichaba Chelopo-Mgobozi (30)

PHD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry

As a child Madichaba Chelopo-Mgobozi used to think that the successful people in the world were the ones on TV. Despite the gendered nature of Stem fields, she easily gravitated towards biochemistry and did not let the fact that she was outnumbered deter her.

Chelopo-Mgobozi has just completed her PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the North-West University. Her PhD project involved the development of a nano-based drug delivery system, with the potential to improve current tuberculosis (TB) therapy.

As a recent mother, she contends that that workspaces need to be more compassionate to women, who should not have to choose between science and motherhood. “We need to create spaces that allow women to still be relevant in science after becoming mothers instead of them being made to feel like they are being penalised; their contracts are not renewed, and they are not adequately supported. Women are not intellectually disadvantaged.”

Her deep-seated passion for mentorship is informed by the fact that she went to a public school that offered inadequate information about future study possibilities. Were it not for an expo that she attended when she was in high school, the notion of university would not have been within her reach. “Young black South Africans need mentors more than anything else. Even as a young professional, I need mentorship as it is pivotal to my career growth.”

In 2015 Chelopo-Mgobozi was part of the Next Generation Scientist programme held in Switzerland — an intensive capacity-building programme for students that creates lifelong connections and international exposure.
What is next for this warrior woman? “This is just the start; I have not arrived yet. I am currently exploring how I can create links between science and social entrepreneurship, so I can do socially engaged work. Science is about changing society, after all.” — Nomonde Ndwalaza

Nicholas Tsila (31)

Nicholas Tsila (31)

Explosive researcher, CSIR

“I am an entrepreneur and realist at heart, always looking at how to improve things around me and recognising opportunities they present,” says Nicholas Tsila, explosive researcher for the CSIR. He hails from Kabokweni — a small township near Nelspruit, Mpumalanga — and is one of the only black people in South Africa involved in the explosives research field.

In 2006, Tsila joined the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Ammunition and Explosive Corps to pursue a career in the field of explosive ordnance engineering and ammunition systems. He did further studies in explosive engineering at Unisa and eight years later joined the CSIR Landward Science division at the Detonics, Ballistics and Explosives Laboratory.

Today, Tsila manages the only explosives research lab in South Africa for the CSIR. “I lead a team of seasoned professionals in providing local and international clients world-class services in the challenging and unique field of explosive test and evaluation,” Tsila says.

The work requires discipline and focus on detail to ensure that successful services are provided to support the development of safe products that will save lives and add value to clients. Dealing with experimental and advanced explosive devices means that safe working procedures and specialised training are imperative to create a secure working environment.

At work, Tsila is a member of the CSIR test team that conducts vehicle landmine protection validation in accordance with local and international test standards. As the only person with capability in this work in South Africa, Tsila and the team are recognised both locally (in the SANDF and defence industry) and internationally.

Tsila also assists the CSIR explosive manager in reviewing test plans from leading scientists and engineers to assist them in improving the safety of their designs. He has participated extensively in counter-terrorism research undertaken by the CSIR.

In the future, Tsila hopes to become a major player in the explosive effects research space and has ambitions to do his MSc in explosives with Cranfield University in the UK. Tsila will be presenting a paper he co-authored, titled Experimental Characterisation of the Effects of Three Different Explosives Using the Blast Test Device at the International Symposium on Military Aspects of Blast and Shock in September 2018 in the Netherlands. — Shaazia Ebrahim