Nomhle Ngwenya

South African

PhD researcher

#Geography #EnvironmentalSciences
Where are you from?

Currently based in

I was born in Durban but raised in Johannesburg my whole 23 years! I am so grateful to have had such a solid upbringing and given the most opportunities by my parents. I grew up with strong values instilled in me and my parents have always played a major role in me fighting for what I believe in and constantly pursuing my dreams. I learnt at a very young age the value of independence and hard work through watching them, regardless of whatever successes or failures they had. As a millennial growing up in such a constantly changing society I began to identify myself as a change maker no matter how small or big my impact would be. Now that I am also more mature and affirmative in who I am, my identity is very rooted in being authentically African and acknowledging the power and resilience I have as an African female.

South Africa

What is your educational background?

My first degree straight after matric in 2015, I did a Bachelor of Arts at Wits University in which I majored in Geography and Sociology. I have always been interested in the interlinkages between society and science and a B.A gave me a holistic understanding of this. In 2018, I then did my BSc Honours in Geography and Environmental Sciences also at Wits, and this degree was more around wanting to understand the impacts of climate change, sustainability and low-carbon technologies. I graduated cum laude for my Honour’s and was recommended to go into a PhD programme. I am currently in the second year of my doctoral studies and my research is looking at the importance of innovative climate finance for financing low-carbon technologies in South Africa.

What is your current occupation?

I am a second year PhD candidate in Geography and Environmental Sciences at Wits University.

What (or who) got you into STEM?

My parents have always been advocates of me pursuing a STEM career especially because of the exposure and opportunities it would give me but also because there is a lack of representation of African women in STEM careers. Secondly, my supervisor, Professor Mulala Danny Simatele has also been instrumental in me wanting to pursue a STEM career further especially in the research space.

What is the biggest challenge/barrier you have faced as an African in STEM?

The biggest challenge I have faced is the lack of representation of young African women in STEM. I have found older African women as well as men in STEM but there is a gap specifically in young African females pursuing STEM careers. This comes down to societal and cultural pressures that young African women are faced with such as being expected to marry at a certain age or be pressured to have children. All these factors can be barriers for African women to pursue or complete their academic studies because STEM careers/research can be vigorous and requires a significant amount of dedication and hard work to excel. Being 23 and pursuing a STEM career I see these barriers where it is challenging sometimes as you have your own views and opinions and trying to make your mark but your voice is not loud enough because you are female, black and young. Besides these barriers, being in a position where I am now this provides me with the opportunity to challenge those societal and cultural stereotypes and lay the platform for other young female Africans who want to be in STEM.

How do you think your background/upbringing has been beneficial in your journey/career?

My parents raised me to be strong, resilient, and hardworking and to always align my values with my purpose and dreams in life. This has been very important in my journey when I have experienced moments where I felt I was not enough or felt that I was not impactful in my work. In moments when I have allowed myself to feel vulnerable or insecure I am always able to remind myself of how far I have come and my strengths and values instilled in me from my upbringing. It is challenging being a young female African doctoral student where you are under-represented, where there are stereotypes attached to you because of your race, age and gender as well as traditional patriarchal views which are subliminally passed every now and then. It is in these moments where I constantly remind myself of what I have been taught, what I have been able to achieve and never letting go of the bigger picture of creating impactful work in Africa and the world.

How do you think we can start to change the narrative surrounding African contributions to global STEM research & careers?

It first starts with an understanding and contextualizing the history of Africa. We live in a continent that has scars of colonialism and in the particular context of South Africa, a history of apartheid. In the past being African and pursuing a career in STEM was unheard of due to the limited opportunities and exposure given to Africans because of the exclusion based on race. In addition, in the past, Africans were boxed into menial or labour type jobs and were not seen as intelligent to pursue research or careers in STEM.

In order to start changing the narrative it's important that Africans do not become trapped in the ideologies of the past and realise that we are just as competitive, intelligent and ambitious to make contributions to global STEM research and careers. Secondly, it is important that we encourage young people to pursue an interest in STEM careers and this starts in primary and secondary school. It is not enough to ask students to choose maths and science but to make them see a deeper meaning and value of STEM in the 21st century and the impacts they can make in this space. Lastly, to change the narrative among Africans in STEM is to inspire them on how their research or career can contribute to the advancement of society and the world. Just because you are an African researcher does not limit you from making a grand breakthrough discovery or being recognised at an international level. African researchers or in careers in STEM are just as important and just as impactful.

What advice would you like to give to young, aspiring African’s in STEM?

The advice I would like to give them is that they are enough and so important in the world we live in today. We need young, aspiring Africans in STEM to contribute to sustainable solutions for the various challenges we face in our continent and in the world. It is also important to be diverse and to seek knowledge beyond what you have. Instead of just being a scientist, it is important to ask questions and engage how science can impact policy making or influence business decisions. Lastly, work hard and stay up to date with current affairs. Global issues enrich your perspective.

Do you have any project you're working on that you would like us to highlight?

I am currently working on a blog, which will look at all the African novels I have read, and some of the key inspirations that I have come across relating to African identity. I am also launching an initiative on African leadership within climate change organisations (I will definitely keep everyone posted once this launches).

Social media links

Twitter: @Nomhle_Nomz

Linkedin: Nomhle Ngwenya

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