School of Chemistry & Physics

WWIS strike a pose with their awards. From left are Ms Devina Chetty, Ms Mbali Gwacela, Dr Konstantina Velkushanova, Dr Maria Schuld, and Ms Nobuhle Mchunu.

UKZN’s Wonder Women in Science Inspire at Breakfast Celebration

To mark National Science Week and National Women’s Month, UKZN hosted the third annual Wonder Women in Science (WWIS) breakfast at the Coastlands Hotel in Durban.

It was attended by the University’s five “Wonder Women”, staff and students, 70 high school science learners, business representatives, and the media. Amazon Web Services donated prizes for each of the WWIS and eThekwini Municipality transported and donated gift bags for the high school learners.

During August, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science (CAES) publicised and celebrated the achievements of five of its women scientists – one in each School – through a series of articles and interviews that profiled their passion for their fields of work and their journeys to ‘make waves in the field of science.’

Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Nana Poku, welcomed the 230 guests and expressed his appreciation for the network of relationships that made it possible for the WWIS to achieve their goals and is enabling the training of the next generation of scientists.

‘I am particularly pleased to be here, because this event showcases what some of our outstanding scholars have achieved. We also recognise that it is an opportunity to reflect on how challenging it is for our most able women, particularly from disadvantaged communities, to achieve any position of prominence in the academy and industry,’ said Poku. ‘So we are not only celebrating the actualisation of our position in history, but also making a clarion call to our communities, institutions and government to prioritise the advancement of women across all sectors of society.’

WWIS Dr Konstantina Velkushanova of the School of Engineering’s Pollution Research Group (PRG) related her early dream of becoming a medical doctor, but ending up excelling in environmental engineering, despite two severe car accidents and the loss of her father when she was a student. ‘I was driven by the fact that I wanted to help save people’s lives,’ said Velkushanova. ‘I work in water and sanitation projects, developing solutions for those that don’t have access to such services, those who are most in need. Through my work I feel that I am contributing on a daily basis to saving more lives than if I were a medical doctor.’

Biostatistician and PhD candidate Ms Nobuhle Mchunu of the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science described growing up in Greytown and moving from learning in isiZulu to having to grapple with being taught in English, as well as developing a passion for Mathematics that was nurtured by a dedicated teacher. ‘Getting to where I am today was not easy; there have always been obstacles along the way,’ she said. She lost her mother while completing her master’s degree and then fell pregnant, while also having to care for three siblings. Nevertheless, she strove to be an example to her family, passing her master’s with flying colours. Mchunu encouraged younger girls to believe in their capabilities and work hard.

Ms Mbalenhle “Mbali” Gwacela, a Development Lecturer and PhD candidate in the School of Agricultural Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) spoke of her journey to becoming an “accidental scientist” and a caring lecturer. She recounted how her grandmother’s generosity, particularly with regard to food, inspired her to care for others and piqued her interest in food security. ‘There are no accidents in science,’ said Gwacela, ‘because it teaches you to expect the unexpected.’

Ms Devina Chetty, an honours student in the School of Life Sciences, paid tribute to her parents, who she said modelled hard work and sacrifice, and demonstrated that hard work always pays off. ‘This pushed me to do my best, not for the sake of impressing others, but for myself,’ she said. She encouraged the young girls present to set big goals and give of their best.

Dr Maria Schuld from the Centre of Quantum Technology in the School of Chemistry and Physics said that she feels confident due to her belief that she has nothing to lose. Schuld, who began her academic career in Political Science, added that she appreciates the diversity of thought and the collaborative nature of her field of Physics. She also recounted the surprising turns her journey had taken on the road to a PhD in Physics and beyond. ‘There is space for everyone in this field, and you can shape the community,’ she said.

Following these inspiring stories, guests had the chance to try their hands at a series of scientific mystery-solving tasks set by the Science and Technology Education Centre’s Dr Tanja Reinhardt and inspired by television shows Crime Scene Investigation and The Big Bang Theory. Each table had to collect various pieces of evidence to discover who sat in Sheldon’s spot, including decoding a message using a pigpen cipher, testing the pH of several samples, matching fingerprints to suspects and more. A table made up of staff from the PRG, CAES and SAEES walked away with the prize.

The atmosphere turned electric during the lucky draw, where guests had a chance to win amazing prizes. Eskom donated pen sets, UKZN Information and Communication Services (ICS) donated laptop bags and head phones, the Corporate Relations Division donated bags and 2CANA Solutions donated two wireless keyboards/mice and a tablet.

The organisers thanked industry partners that included eThekwini Municipality; 2CANA Solutions; Amazon Web Services; Dis-Chem; Nestlé; RCL Foods; Umgeni Water; Eskom; UKZN InQubate; UKZN ICS and STEC@UKZN. Event organiser Mr Sashlin Girraj also thanked local schools who attended, including Queensburgh Girls’ High; Durban Girls’ High; Eden College; Star College; Sithokozile Secondary School; Greenbury Secondary School; Wyebank Secondary School and Mariannridge Secondary School.

Click to view the full speech by the Vice-Chancellor.

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Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Albert Hirasen