These women are passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are advancing science in their own diverse fields. One of those “Wonder Women” from the School of Chemistry and Physics is Dr Maria Schuld, who says one of the things she is most proud of is being a scientist working in South Africa.
Her curious nature led Schuld to a career in science, even though she tried to avoid it. Her earliest memories of encountering science are characterised by what many associate with the sciences: fear and boredom. The first emotion was the result of a competitive mathematics game played in her pre-school years, where the prospect of getting the answer wrong sent her scuttling into the bathroom for cover.
The second response to the sciences came from attending a lecture on quantum mechanics when she was 15, where the older professor delivering the lecture seemed intent on expounding dull equations rather than the wonders of the phenomena he was describing.
Schuld’s own predilection to this field drew her in regardless.
‘I am naturally the type that asks questions until I understand, or at least until someone gets cross,’ she said. ‘In this job, you never stop learning, being challenged and thinking; it’s like athletics for the brain.’
Schuld’s academic career is a varied one. She began by studying a “Diplom” in political science in her native Germany through a bursary funded by the German Academic Foundation, who then also supported her BSc and MSc in Physics at the Technical University of Berlin, and even lent their support when she enrolled at UKZN to pursue a PhD in Physics.
In her work as a part-time researcher at UKZN’s Centre for Quantum Technology and at Xanadu Quantum Computing, Schuld investigates how quantum computers, which run very differently from everyday computers, can be used to achieve machine learning by obeying the laws of quantum theory.
‘I find it fascinating to investigate if this allows us to push the boundaries of what a machine can learn from and discover in data, such as videos, social media posts or images,’ she said.
Schuld’s work with Xanadu Quantum Computing, a startup that builds one of these machines, will, she hopes, turn her theoretical models into reality.
If the field Schuld works in sounds complicated, that is because it is, she says.
‘Everything that is remotely “true” is always very, very complex,’ she said. ‘Never trust simple stories like you find them in TED talks (Technology, Entertainment, Design) and newspapers.’
Schuld combines her work as an academic researcher with a career that applies research findings to real-world technologies. Despite choosing a scientific career because she preferred this to the prospect of working to making a company richer, Schuld acknowledges that it is possible to achieve both successfully.
Her work is not limited to research and application; Schuld has also mentored two teenagers from Wentworth in Durban for five years, and worked with the “Hawu” school outreach programme for a few years. Despite not attending school or teaching in this country, she has observed the hard work learners have to put in to close the gap between the schooling they receive and the expectations of university life. She also works with Open Data Durban, a local Civic Technology Lab, and says work with these kinds of initiatives is a source of optimism and joy.
Like any career, a career in science is not without its challenges, with one of the greatest for Schuld being that of self-doubt. In fact, if she had a superpower, it would be the power to heal people of the sense of a lack of self-worth. Her advice to budding female scientists, therefore, is to get their morale straight early on.
‘Ask if you’re happy with your own work, if you did your best, and if you enjoyed it,’ she said. ‘If yes, stop worrying about whether you are good enough, and if not, then change something.’
Given her demanding work, Schuld says she is still working to achieve a happy work-life balance, but her eternal optimism shines through as she says she is confident that, like her theories, this will soon become a reality.
All of our Wonder Women in Science could easily be undercover superheroes, and so here is some inside info on the kind of superhero we’ve found in Schuld:
Q. What would your super power be and why?
A. Healing people from a lack of self-worth. That makes me feel very helpless.
Q. What song would be your theme song?
A. BCUC – Yinde, one of the most energetic songs ever made.
Q. What would your superhero gadget be and why?
A. A computer and a good WiFi connection. There’s nothing you can’t do, if you have those two.
Q. Who would be in your “all-star team” to take on the world?
A. My partner, family, friends, colleagues…it takes a village to take on the world!
Q. Where would your secret lair/ hide out be?
A. On a surfboard in the ocean, with gentle waves.
Q. What is your kryptonite (weakness)?
A. Finding a work-life balance.
For other inspirational Wonder Women In Science stories, visit: wwis.ukzn.ac.za
Word: Christine Cuénod
Photographs: Sashlin Girraj