07 March 2018


    ​​​​​​​A woman’s place is in the lab

    More and more women and girls are turning traditional ideas around and carving out inspiring and exciting careers in science. Here are two young South African woman making waves.

    More and more women and girls are turning traditional ideas around and carving out inspiring and exciting careers in science. Here are two young South African woman making waves.

    In the genes

    Food security is a vital issue, and the answers are complex. One young woman tackling the problem is Pelly Malebe. She is pursuing her PhD in Biotechnology at the University of Pretoria looking for ways to identify genetic markers for drought tolerance and higher yield in crops.

    Her research is focused on the tea plant, but what she discovers can be applied to many other crops. ‘Ultimately,’ she told Levers in Heels, ‘research such as this has the potential to impact on food security through the breeding of drought-tolerant crop varieties.’

    In 2013, Pelly was awarded the Women in Science Award doctoral fellowship by the Department of Science and Technology, and in 2016 was selected as an ambassador by the Next Einstein Forum (NEF). NEF is an initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences connecting African scientists with the rest of the world, and encouraging scientists to contribute to human development globally.

    Pelly was born in Maseven in Limpopo, and showed promise from an early age. ‘As a young girl I remember having so many questions and a few answers. I have always wanted to know why people look the way they do. Why I have my mother’s lips and father’s eyes. I remember in high-school when my biology teacher first introduced me to DNA. I found that most of the answers to my questions could be found in textbooks and on a computer screen. That is what led to my interest in genetics and biotechnology,’ she says.

    As well as being a top researcher, Pelly became a mother last year. ‘I am learning each day, to live a balanced life. [...] I owe it to myself to fulfil all my dreams, and that includes being happy.’

    Scientific a-peel

    Last year, South Africa was abuzz when schoolgirl Kiara Nirghin won the Google Science Fair Grand Prize for her project that tackled the problem of drought and its devastating effects on farmers. She developed a superabsorbent polymer that holds hundreds of times its weight in water, and can be added to the soil to supply water to thirsty crops. It’s inexpensive, free of chemicals and is biodegradable, so it’s good for the environment as well - and it’s all derived from orange peels left over from the juice industry.

    Kiara has since been named one of the world’s most influential teens, and has become an in-demand speaker at TedX events and several conferences.

    This year, Kiara has gone on to be named a 2018 Global Teen Leader and is promoting the importance of science and conservation. She’s also working on applying her invention to water filtration, and on making it commercially viable.

    Kiara told CNBC Africa: ‘I would like to be an inspiration to young girls in SA to pursue careers in STEM and really believe that their ideas can change the world. Winning this award was not just for me or my community, it’s for South Africa as a whole. It shows that anyone has the ability to create something like this.’

    Coding for girls

    In a changing world, technology is where many future jobs will lie. Skills like coding are vital to young people who want to build a relevant and exciting career. But coding, like many IT jobs, are still considered by many to be ‘for boys’.

    Vodacom and its parent company Vodafone are committed to changing this perception, and have been providing teenage girls in 26 countries with coding workshops.

    Through its #codelikeagirl initiative, Vodacom is encouraging girls to embrace the world of computing and other STEM fields, developing vital skills that are essential to South Africa as a whole.

    Read more about this exciting initiative here.

    Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash