School of Chemistry & Physics

Dr Nomfundo Mahlangeni.

Chemist Has the Right Mix of Hard Work and Persistence

To commemorate National Science Week and National Women’s Month, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science is honouring its female scientists through a Wonder Women in Science campaign.

The women are described as passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are making waves in the field of science.

Growing up in rural Ndwedwe in KwaZulu-Natal, Dr Nomfundo Mahlangeni was raised by a single parent in a loving home. It was here where she developed a passion for reading which quenched her thirst for knowledge.

In high school, she discovered her love for science. ‘We had a project in Grade 8 on the setup of electric circuits. It was so exciting to be hands on and see textbook experiments come to life,’ she recalls.

At that point, Mahlangeni knew she wanted to be nothing but a scientist. After finishing high school, she joined UKZN in 2007 and pursued a degree in Chemistry. She was also eager to work in a laboratory; having never seen one before.

While at university, she excelled, obtaining her Master’s cum laude and eventually receiving her PhD last year. She considers these milestone as some of her greatest achievements.

Later on that year, Mahlangeni was invited to attend the State of the Nation Address (SONA). She spoke to prominent officials about African scientific contributions and the lack of opportunities to implement findings and obtain funding.

Mahlangeni is now working as a post-doctoral researcher at the School of Chemistry and Physics. Her research focuses on a plant-mediated synthesis of metal nanoparticles and their biological applications.

She looks up to several women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) fields that have inspired her journey so far. These (STEM) women include Dr Roshila Moodley, Professor Catherine Ngila and Professor Philiswa Nomngongo.

Being second guessed and overlooked are some of the challenges Mahlangeni has faced as a female scientist. Her advice to budding female scientists is to unite forces and be open to criticism. ‘Be supportive towards your fellow female scientists and build each other up. Do not be afraid to receive criticism as you can use it to grow,’ she says.

Mahlangeni believes that ‘we need to produce more Science and Maths teachers in order to improve Science education in South Africa.’ ‘There are schools without Maths and Science teachers which puts those learners at a disadvantage. The government should review this matter and decide on a course of action,’ she said.

Although she may have started on an uneven plane, she has consistently worked hard, learned from her challenges and pushed through towards her goal.

Her path towards greatness has been driven by a “never-give-up” philosophy that has carried her through hard times. ‘Disappointments and failures will come in waves, so don’t stop swimming,’ she says.

* In August, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science will present an article on each one of the five Wonder Women in Science.

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Words and photograph: Sashlin Girraj