Science champion wants to see more young women in STEM

A 25-year-old student from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in South Africa has been channelling her love for science into nearby communities where she is raising awareness about careers for women in science and providing information to girls about fields of study in the sciences.

Currently enrolled for her third science degree, Weliswa Kunene said she was ignorant about the scope of science qualifications and careers when she started studying.

The third-year pharmacy student’s work has been acknowledged by lecturers and high school pupils as she has used the institution’s Mini-Habitable Planet Workshop to raise awareness in local communities about careers for women in science.

The Mini-Habitable Planet Workshop is a community engagement programme that the university established in 2019. It is a platform for various projects targeting high school pupils in Claremont and KwaDabeka, Durban.

With the broad theme of ‘Inspire Township Learners to Pursue Science-related Careers’, activities vary from science club sessions, science practicals, career guidance and educational field trips to motivational talks on mental health and well-being.

Lack of awareness

Kunene said her own experience was what inspired her to raise awareness.

In 2015, she enrolled for a BSc degree in biochemistry and microbiology at UKZN. She graduated in 2018.

The following year, she enrolled for an honours degree in medical microbiology at UKZN and completed the qualification in 2019. In 2020, she began her pharmacy degree.

“I was uninformed about the various careers that existed in science. I completed [my first and second degrees] with good grades because I fell in love with lab work and my research project on HIV drugs and mutations.

“I then applied for a pharmacy degree and enrolled in 2020. It has been the best decision of my academic career,” said Kunene.

Tackling the gender and poverty gaps

Speaking to University World News, Kunene said that the objective of her project is to promote science in schools and offer career guidance while also addressing the gender gap that exists in science.

“Women, as we know, have historically been marginalised and under-represented in many spheres, especially in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], therefore, our programme encourages more female participation to bridge that gap and empower girls,” she said.

“The main thing is to create awareness of all the male-dominated science careers they could venture into and take up space. We offer a unique and innovative approach in delivering career expos,” said Kunene.

“We invite female professionals and university students in STEM to speak to the pupils about their academic journey with the hope of inspiring and imparting the realities of the working world.”

Kunene said, given stereotypes about science, such as that it is difficult and better suited to those in privileged schools, those involved in the project have identified this as a problem that contributes to the fear of pursing science for many pupils in under-resourced schools.

“We have partnered with the STEC@UKZN science centre to deliver science practicals that are in line with the CAPS curriculum [the public school curriculum in South Africa] to overcome the challenge of traditional classroom learning but no practical experience of the science taught.

“Stereotypes of careers known to be better suited to men or other races – for example, agriculture, software development and engineering – are still a hindrance in achieving gender equality.

“For that reason, our programme involves women who disrupt the status quo by occupying higher-ranking positions in STEM careers. For the girl child growing up in a township with so many social ills, including gender-based violence, it has become everyone’s responsibility to be a `Sister’s Keeper’, and mine is through education,” said Kunene.

Meanwhile, Dr Sibusiso Senzani, a lecturer at the UKZN school of laboratory medicine and medical sciences, told University World News that the UKZN Mini-Habitable Planet Workshop is an important project.

He explained: “As someone who comes from a township, I am well aware that, while you are in school you are not fully aware of the opportunities available to you, and you do not really know what you can do with the subjects you are learning. This programme introduces these aspects to these kids to let them know what they can actually do with science.

“It does so, not just by telling them, but showing them examples of people who come from where they come from who can advise them how to get to where they want to go. In addition to this, it breathes a sense of excitement into these students when it comes to science through experimentation and field trips to science centres, ecological and conservation institutions which fosters better learning,” he said.

Environmental focus

Slindile Dlamini, a pupil from Buhlebemfundo Secondary School, said she enjoys attending UKZN Mini-Habitable Planet Workshop programmes, especially when Kunene and her team teach the children about the environment.

“The Mini-Habitable Planet Workshop has taught me and the rest of the Buhlebemfundo environment club to raise awareness on environmental issues,” said Dlamini.

Despite facing challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kunene said they have previously won funds to sponsor the programme through an access bursary scheme and recently won the UKZN Inspiring Impact Challenge.

“Being part of the UKZN Inspiring Impact Challenge alone affirmed that the work we put in is recognised and validated.

“Winning the challenge only ignited a deeper love for servitude and made me realise that I am being entrusted to enrich and empower and make a difference that matters,” said Kunene.