For the last 16 years, L’Oreal, partnering with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), has been running an incredible global campaign to celebrate scientific achievements and excellence by women.
Called For Women in Science, the idea is both to celebrate achievement, focus grants on important research and create role models for young women thinking about a scientific career.
The main awards are usually presented in March and create five laureates (one from each of five geographical areas) and 15 International Fellows. Throughout the year, however, dozens more women are honoured at smaller events in the build up to the final ceremony.
The programme is funded and run by the L’Oreal Foundation.
This year, 10 Fellows from around Africa have been selected to receive grants towards furthering their research in their respective fields, and put forward as candidates for the International Fellowship and Laureate programs. Nine of these extraordinary women were recently flown down to South Africa to attend a formal awards ceremony in Johannesburg (the tenth unfortunately could not make it) and the htxt.women team were fortunate enough to grab some time with eight of them.
In her postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Johannesburg, Dr Philiswa Nomngongo is focusing on the online separation/pre-concentration of trace elements in liquid fuel, food and environmental samples to determine their exact species using inductively coupled plasma-optical emission spectrometry. Her goal is to develop protocols for sample preparation which overcome the challenges of matrix effects in inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.
“My postdoctoral work is based on the analysis of water pollutants. There are different sample matrixes – water, fuel, food, pharmaceutical products, etc. I analyse metals because some of them we need for our growth, things like iron and zinc, but if they are too much in the body, they become toxic. We need to look if the levels of those metals are acceptable (especially in water) and in fuel, metals are not needed at all. They cause engine damage but also environmental pollution. So I check the levels of the metal in the petrol, I check the purity.
“All my degrees were chemistry, but during honours I fell in love with analytical chemistry and the amazing things you can do with it. It’s very interesting because you don’t only cover one thing, you look for a wide variety of things and you can also develop some methods that can help us to be able to get information about the subject matter. With water, for example, what can we do and how much to we need to purify it. It really helps.
“When you look at South Africa, and you look at a field like science and technology, you always see men. As I was growing up, I told myself that I had to go somewhere and get somewhere. And once I got my PhD and postdoc work, I thought – yes, it is time for me to tell other young women that we can do it. It’s not a gender based thing, science is for everyone, we can all get into the field. But my advice to all women is that there is no limitation in education. All that we need is determination. We know what we want to be. Don’t lose hope. Press on. You’ll become the best woman in the world one day.
“When I started my PhD, I decided that one day I need to go back where I came from, to my village, and tell those women who are still in high school to study hard. It’s not about where you come from but rather about what you want to be in the next few years.
“With the L’Oréal-UNESCO grant money, my plan is to buy research equipment… but with a percentage I would love to sponsor one, young South African woman to do her Masters. I have this, and now it is my chance to pull someone new into the field and hopefully the next person will do the same. We’ll form a chain. It may be my postdoctoral work, but my aim is to get one woman do to her Masters in analytical chemistry.”
In her doctoral fellowship at the University of Cape Town, Omowunmi Isafiade is researching how the effective use of crime mining data can lead to the promotion of safe and secure smart cities. Centered on developing ubiquitous intelligence for these newly designed communities, the study is intended to generate a two stage hybrid model for tactical crime analysis.
“My research is about crime situation recognition for improved public safety outcome. We’re looking to improve crime data analysis so that we can derive knowledge and provide information to the public safety authorities so that they can channel their resources to achieve specific crime targets, solving specific crime targets. So my research actually involves statistical techniques to achieve this purpose.
“I’ve published an article (based on a survey) where I’ve tried to do some really narrow analysis. We were able to mine crime data and then actually highlight locations of hotspots where crime is more prevalent.
“It’s so interesting to know that cities all over the world face a lot of challenges and in a bid to solve most of these challenges, there is a new initiative that is being developed that is called Smart City. So this Smart City initiative, in summary, makes use of information and communication technology to improve citizen’s wellness and, of course, assist the government to respond proactively to the needs of the citizens. Among the specific components of Smart City, I realized that safety is a very key issue because it’s only when a city is safe, that it can actually be smart. So now we talk about safe and smart cities and that is where safety comes in – my research is on the public safety approach to Smart City. I’m looking at crime situation recognition where we can use techniques to derive knowledge from crime data that is available. It is so interesting to know that the crime data that is being archived by the public safety authorities is so numerous, and it can be very overwhelming to do those analyses manually. So we need some kind of intelligence to really get some good knowledge from this data.
“My advice to women interested in this field is to go for it. Every woman has a potential in her so we shouldn’t underrate ourselves. I wouldn’t have thought that five years ago I would have come this far, but because I’ve held onto my dreams, I keep on going with it. I’ve come so far and am so glad to be at this point where I am so I want to encourage every women to go for it. Pursue your dream. Be focused. And you can achieve whatever you want to achieve.
“This award is so fantastic and motivating. I really look forward to using the money efficiently for my research work, to pursue equipment like a very good laptop to facilitate the analysis process. And also to motivate myself in terms of how to gather information about data and get in touch with public safety authorities to get information about the state of crime.”
Candice Rassie is researching multichannel electrochemical cytochrome P450 enzyme phenotype-nanobiosensor systems in her doctoral fellowship at the University of the Western Cape, with the outcome of developing a device to enable the tailoring of TB treatments consistent with patients’ needs and phenotypes.
“We specialise in electro-chemical biosensors. Basically, we use a biological molecule – in my case, an enzyme in the body which metabolises TB drugs. We then use this enzyme to determine the metabolic profile of a TB patient. With TB you get a six-month course of drugs or treatments, but each person has a different metabolism which means there are many times when a person can have hectic side effects like hepatitis and liver toxicity. We call them adverse drug reactions. So what we are trying to do is tailorise this TB treatment according to a TB patient’s metabolism. And we’re going to do this using a biosensor.
“We’re at the ground level still, a PhD is always a challenge. I was always interested to find out how things work in the body. I wanted to get to the nitty-gritty of things… My group is very involved with sensors and we have done similar work on TB drugs. This is something that is a huge thing in South Africa because of the amount of TB patients, the death rate and the number of TB patients that don’t finish their drug regimes and so on. What we’re trying to minimize the side effects so that the patients will finish their six-month course. If we can take away the side effects, people will be more encouraged to take their drugs.
“I’m hoping to be finished by PhD by the end of next year. L’Oréal is helping us tremendously with this award. What we can do with this money is actually make a device so we can take a sample from a TB patient and then determine their profile and tailorise the drugs for that person.
“It has been so rewarding and encouraging to meet all these scientists from all over Africa. Our fields are so different yet it is nice to so that there are so many women out there making a difference in science.
“Science in itself is such an indistinct field. Our group is also working with nanotechnology which is something so new and novel and you can make all these kinds of devices that are small and portable and its very innovative. That is what interests me the most, the innovation.”