Wonder Women in Science Virtual Event a Resounding Success

About 600 people registered for this year’s Wonder Women in Science (WWIS) webinar, which celebrated achievements of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science’s (CAES) five “Wonder Women”.

The individuals – one from each of the College’s Schools – shared their stories of entering and achieving in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

Held every year since 2015, the WWIS campaign is usually accompanied by a breakfast event but was substituted this year by an online celebration because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The August event celebrates National Science Week and National Women’s Month by honouring female scientists in the CAES who are pioneering innovative research and development, demonstrating passion for their fields, and mentoring up-and-coming young scientists.

The bumper programme included performances by South African singing sensation Lira, with television presenter Mr Katlego Maboe facilitating proceedings.

Groups of learners from the Umkhumbane Secondary School in Chesterville and the Ikusasalentsha Secondary School in Inanda were on the webinar (social distancing regulations were carefully observed) and received goodie bags from Amazon Web Services.

Eden College in Durban hosted their own tea party as part of the webinar and participants received goodie bags from UKZN’s Corporate Relations Division. Several schools live-streamed the event in their classrooms but did not appear on the broadcast, including Nomavimbla High, Usethubenu Youth School, Solvista Secondary and AD Lazarus Secondary.

Participants watched presentations by the 2020 WWIS candidates on their journeys into their respective fields of science.

‘Today, UKZN celebrates Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics on behalf of women who succeed in these endeavours and these disciplines,’ said Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the CAES Professor Albert Modi in an address for the event. ‘These are the women who will be part of the solutions for this country and the world as we face many challenges, including climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.’

Dr Bongiwe Mshengu of the School of Chemistry and Physics and a senior tutor in UKZN’s Science Access Programme spoke about her interest in science first being piqued when she was treated by a traditional healer. Mshengu encouraged scholars interested in science to investigate the various career options available, explore their own interests, and to work hard.

Professor Suna Kassier of the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences spoke about what inspired her interest in science, her academic journey, and her work in various specialities of dietetics that led her to realise her passion lay in teaching and motivating young people. Kassier encouraged those viewing the webinar to pursue lifelong learning and to not be daunted by failure, saying accomplishment is achieved through adaptability and humility.

Dr Joy Adu of the School of Engineering spoke on challenges of coming from a humble background and being told what women could and could not do when she was a child. Adu also recalled the determination of her grandmother which motivated her to pursue her passion for civil engineering, a problem-solving field which she says presents endless possibilities for shaping the world.

Microscopist and microbiologist Dr Lorika Beukes of the School of Life Sciences described the passion for science she cultivated from a young age that gave her the boost to persevere in her studies through UKZN’s Science Access Programme. Beukes said young people should realise that no matter their background, age, gender or race, they could succeed in the sciences through hard work and focus.

Dr Hloniphile Sithole Mthethwa of the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science described how mathematics drew her in from an early age saying it was like a language everyone used daily and could be fluent in with enough practice. Mthethwa said to encourage young people to pursue mathematics it was necessary to increase the amount of information and guidance available and to debunk the stigma of mathematics being too difficult. She advised young women to be inspired by female leaders in STEM, and concluded by drawing attention to the urgent need to combat the scourge of gender-based violence in South Africa.

Each WWIS candidate received an award certificate from the CAES, and gifts from Umgeni Water and Amazon Web Services.

Dr Tanja Reinhardt (“Dr T”) of the Science and Technology Education Centre at UKZN performed two fun science experiments to demonstrate the surface tension of water, and a catalytic reaction that forms a foamy substance known as “Elephant’s Toothpaste”. Assisted by UKZN staff on site, learners at Umkhumbane Secondary and Ikusasalentsha Secondary performed the experiments live under Dr T’s guidance.

The programme included lucky draws for the schools joining live and online, and also for online participants, with prizes sponsored by Elsevier, Umgeni Water, 2CANA Solutions, and UKZN’s Information and Communication Services (ICS).

Event initiator and co-ordinator Mr Sashlin Girraj of UKZN closed the event with a vote of thanks for the work and support of the University and the CAES Public Relations Divisions, the ICS, the CAES Deputy Vice-Chancellor and administrative division, event sponsors, Dr T, Maboe and Lira and their teams, and the schools and guests who took part.

The webinar will be available on the WWIS website.

Visit our website to see a gallery of images from the event: https://wwis.ukzn.ac.za/2020-wwis-webinar-gallery/

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Sashlin Girraj