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Inspirational women in South African STEM landscape

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Whether it's colleagues, mentors, relatives, or even historical figures, many of us can name role models and inspiring individuals who have influenced us in our lives and careers.

These people are particularly important in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). As the tech sector exponentially grows and sifts, it is so important that young girls are given access to female role models. Without having someone to look up to, women can feel overwhelmed and under-confident when involved in STEM. Having a female role model, particularly one in a high-profile role, allows young women to gain deeper insight into the possibilities of a career in STEM.

I am excited about a future in which every girl has a STEMinist Hero -- a female figure who can inspire her and help her to overcome any obstacles she will face in pursuing her dreams. With this kind of community and support, we can make sure that gender parity becomes the norm in the tech biased sector.

Untold stories

There are countless inspiring women working in South African STEM today. And there have been many more throughout history, whose stories often went untold.

I have the honour to introduce you to 12 remarkable South African researchers and practitioners from the STEM who have inspired my every step of the way.

Let's learn more about these exceptional women, and how they've fiercely advocate for social justice:

1. Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng – Vice Chancellor, University of Cape Town

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She is a passionate STEM activist and education advocate. She has worked to improve the diversity and participation of people from historically disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education and scientific research. She is committed to transforming the education landscape in South Africa to help create a society that is equitable, prosperous, and inclusive. She is the recipient of several awards, including the Order of Mapungubwe by the South African government. Professor Phakeng is a leader in her field and committed to creating a world where everyone has access to education and can realise their potential.

2. Prof. Cheryl de la Rey – Vice-Chancellor and Principal, University of Pretoria

Professor Cheryl de la Rey is a Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria, a STEM activist and global innovator in higher education. With an exhaustive academic experience and a passion for the transformative power of education, Prof. de la Rey has been actively driving initiatives to make scientific discoveries, training and research more accessible. She has spearheaded high-impact research, introduced educational interventions to ensure equity, and created innovative educational models to advance the scientific and technological development of South Africa. Under Prof. de la Rey’s leadership, the University of Pretoria is also taking critical steps to ensure inclusivity, diversity and gender equity at the university. She continues to be a global advocate for gender equity and STEM education and is recognised as a powerful speaker and influence on the future of higher education.

3. Dr. Jennifer Ann Thomson – Scientist and Innovator, Founding Director of the African Academy of Sciences

Dr. Jennifer Ann Thomson is a scientist, innovator, and STEM activist. She is the founding director of the African Academy of Sciences, and has dedicated her career to encouraging STEM education, research, and development within Africa. She has a long track record of success, having been involved in projects such as the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorology Observatory and NASA’s mission to explore Mars. She has also worked closely with academia, governments, and corporations to promote the importance of STEM education.

4. Dr. Comfort Lekgoathi – Medical Scientist, Infectious Diseases and Health Systems

Dr. Comfort Lekgoathi is a medical doctor and infectious disease specialist, working at the Nelson Mandela University in South Africa. She is passionate about health research, with a particular focus on HIV/AIDS and TB. In addition, she is an active STEM activist in Africa, dedicated to empowering young women and girls in science, mathematics and technology. She has organized workshops and established a STEM outreach program to support women and girls in STEM and increase their participation in the sciences.

5. Prof. Olenka Villar – Head of the Department of Mathematics,University of the Western Cape

Prof. Olenka Villar is the Head of the Department of Mathematics at the University of the Western Cape. She is a STEM activist who strives for greater representation of women and people of colour in the field of STEM and to increase the access to quality education. She actively works to ensure equitable access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in all communities. She strongly believes that educating young minds with STEM skills and an innovative approach is essential to resolving the many global challenges, and her research focuses on mathematical modelling and its applications in biological, medical and engineering problems.

6. Professor Roseanne Diab – Chief Officer for Biomedical Research and Innovation, Health Innovation Hub South Africa

Professor Roseanne Diab is the Chief Officer for Biomedical Research and Innovation and the STEM Activist at the Health Innovation Hub South Africa, leading public-private collaborations to develop solutions for healthcare problems. With a PhD in biochemistry, she is currently researching genomic technology and its application to clinical practice. She is a passionate advocate for equal access to education, particularly in STEM fields, and is committed to improving healthcare innovation and technology access in Africa. Professor Diab has also developed several initiatives to support holistically diverse research and early-career researchers.

7. Dr. Hlengiwe Khumalo – Physicist and Solar Energy Researcher, University of Johannesburg

Dr. Hlengiwe Khumalo is a physicist and solar energy researcher at the University of Johannesburg. Her research focuses on solar energy assessment and management, as well as energy materials design, synthesis and performance. She is also a STEM activist and worked with students from diverse backgrounds inspiring them to enter STEM careers. In her free time, she is a swimming coach, mentoring students from underprivileged backgrounds and teaching them essential life and professional skills.

8. Professor Elna Buys – Dean of Sciences, Stellenbosch University

Professor Elna Buys is the Dean of Sciences at Stellenbosch University and a STEM activist. She has extensive experience in academics and research. She has published numerous papers, supervised many doctorates and served on various editorial boards. Her research interest lies in the fields of animal nutrition, genetics and health. Additionally, she is an ambassador for STEM and actively participates in the advancement and promotion of the subject. She believes in the importance of improving and expanding the STEM curriculum, paving the way for positive social change. She is an inspiration to many and is deeply committed to enriching the lives in her community through her work.

9. Prof. Linda-Gail Bekker – Deputy Director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, University of Cape Town

Prof. Linda-Gail Bekker is a distinguished HIV clinician and researcher and STEM activist. She is the Deputy Director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at the University of Cape Town. Her research focuses on effective treatments and prevention strategies for HIV. She also works to reduce stigma and discrimination of people living with HIV. Furthermore, she is passionate about girls and women in STEM and inspiring young people, especially girls, to pursue careers in STEM-related fields.

10. Dr. Ndivhuwo Mukhali – Director of the Department of Science and Technology Programmes, University of Venda

Dr. Ndivhuwo Mukhali is the Director of the Department of Science and Technology Programmes at the University of Venda in South Africa. She is a passionate advocate for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education and research in Africa. She is a founding member of the African Women in Science and Technology AfriWise network and has been involved in promoting gender equality in STEM research and education in her home country. Dr. Mukhali also promotes initiatives that bring about greater awareness and potential for innovation through inspiring young African women to pursue STEM-related endeavors. She believes that investing in science and technology gives African countries the power to create more vibrant and sustainable economies.

11. Dr. Motshidisi Pascalina Raipele – Head of the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, University of Venda

Dr. Raipele is an accomplished mathematician and Head of the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at the University of Venda. She pursues a passion for access to STEM education, believing that mathematics and science have the potential to revolutionise the lives of Africans. She is an active STEM advocate, advocating for greater access to STEM education and opportunities, particularly for young women and girls. She actively works to increase the number of African women in STEM fields, whilst striving to increase the diversity of the mathematics and science curriculum. She is an inspirational leader and a passionate advocate for women and girls in STEM education and leadership roles.

12. Dr. Glenda Kruss – Director of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research

Dr. Glenda Kruss is the Director of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and a passionate STEM activist. She has a strong background in engineering and has worked on a variety of projects and initiatives related to the advancement of STEM education in South Africa. She is a regular speaker at national and international events to promote gender equality and greater access to technology and scientific knowledge. Her pioneering work in science and technology has been recognised internationally and she is dedicated to helping build a strong science, technology and innovation system, with the ultimate aim of helping all South Africans to benefit from the opportunities that science and technology offer.

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