The African Health Research Institute (AHRI) in collaboration with UKZN’s Science and Technology Education Centre (STEC@UKZN) celebrated International Day for Women and Girls in Science on 9 February with a series of exciting talks by esteemed female scientists and an educative workshop on the transmissibility of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

As part of the Umkhumbane Schools Project, 39 Grade 9 students from the Umlazi District and three of their female teachers participated in the event. The objective was to inform the young women of the many career fields they could pursue in science and the importance of continuing their studies.

The guest speakers hailed from various backgrounds such as obstetrics, astrophysics, immunology and geology. They recounted their disadvantaged backgrounds and how they were able to overcome obstacles to become inspiring researchers in their respective fields.

Dr Nitalia Naidoo, a young, accomplished researcher in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the AHRI, spoke of her journey to postdoctoral research and encouraged the learners to aim for excellence, as she was offered scholarships throughout her studies. UKZN astrophysicist, lecturer and South African Radio Astronomy postdoctoral fellow, Dr Snenhlanhla Sikhosane shared her experience in the impactful field of astronomy and being able to travel through her research.

Dr Lauren Hoyer, geology lecturer at UKZN, noted the many roles women play as scientists, mothers, bread-winners and partners and emphasised the need for young women and girls to find their niche in life and in science. Similar sentiments were shared by immunology researcher Dr Maphe Mthembu and PhD candidate Ms Tamlyn Seunanden from the AHRI, whose stories of success despite adversity motivated the learners to strive for greatness in every capacity.

Following the talks, students participated in Chat with a Scientist, an informal speed-chat that enabled them to discuss their futures in academia with the speakers. They then engaged in an HIV workshop where they were given glasses of water with two glasses covertly filled with sodium hydroxide (NaOH).

After mixing the liquids, including the ‘contaminated’ pair, the students’ glasses were ‘tested’ with phenolphthalein indicator, turning pink in the presence of NaOH which revealed how sharing liquids eventually contaminated 87% of the glasses. This workshop was a fun demonstration of how easy it is for sexually transmitted diseases to spread amongst the youth and the importance of protecting oneself.

Guidance counsellor from the Umkhumbane Schools Project, Nokwanda Ndwalane, said: ‘I am inspired to return [to UKZN] as a graduate in applied mathematics. It was eye-opening to see all the other fields young women can go into.’ Ms Slindile Mpungose, a learner at Bonela Secondary, said the programme helped her ‘discover so much about how careers in science can be beneficial.’

Words: Survivor Gwala

Photograph: Supplied