From investigating the structure of atomic nuclei to fighting against the devastating loss of bee colonies, the work of 14 tenacious women scientists recently honoured for their work makes for inspiring reading.

The ninth ceremony of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science regional programme took place in Nairobi and highlighted the many strides – and setbacks – of Africa’s leading female scientists. The scientists were each awarded a research grant to support their diverse projects as well as a training programme that extended from leadership tactics to public speaking.

Hosted by the L’Oréal Foundation, the gathering of fellows made for incisive learnings and included eminent minds like Professor Rose Leke, emeritus professor of immunology and parasitology at the University of Yaounde. Rather than deliver a science lecture, Leke spoke powerfully about some of the drawbacks in the profession – such as dealing with your spouse sensitively should your star rise higher than his, or fighting against gender discrimination while maintaining professional courtesies.

Takalani Cele, a fellow from UNISA who specialises in environmental science and condensed matter physics, said the training was particularly relevant for someone “who spends all her time in a lab”. “The challenge of juggling a career and a family – I am a wife and a mother of two – is quite difficult, but it teaches one to be creative, and to multi-task and impact problem-solving skills and valuable knowledge,” she says. Cele is one of eight South Africans in the final cohort. Her research looks at how to benefit from the platinum group metals found in SA before they are exported.

“I am doing nanotechnology research, looking specifically at nano particles that could be used to fight skin cancer. Down the line I see myself making an impact with new scientific cures that help our communities live healthier lives,” she says. The mom of a newborn, she found the lifestyle advice in the training particularly illuminating. “Growing up, all I heard is that science is ‘difficult’ and therefore – by implication – for men only. For that reason, I want my daughter to follow directly in my footsteps. She mustn’t be intimidated by anything or anyone.”

Lerato Hlaka is another PhD candidate, based at the University of Cape Town and working on a novel anti-tuberculosis formulation. She describes herself as the only person in her family not to have fallen victim to TB. “I’m just starting out so this recognition really motivates me and lifts my spirits, encouraging me to go further. It’s also a huge financial boost that will complement my stipend and help me cover my study costs,” Hlaka says.

Asked what her most prominent struggle was, she answered immediately: self-doubt. “I’ve been under tremendous pressure, both internally as much as externally, to keep producing new research. And speaking to the women here, self-doubt is something we’re all grappling with. I’ve needed genuine support in the way of my friends and family constantly encouraging me to keep me going,” Hlaka says.

The powerhouse behind the programme, Alexandra Palt, Executive Vice President of the L’Oréal Foundation, says the fellowships impact goes far beyond gender equality. “It’s about how we’re shaping the future of the world essentially. If we leave men alone to do this, it won’t be a very inclusive future. It’s extremely important that women scientists contribute to shaping our future to prevent the kind of biases we’ve already seen in medical research and also in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence. You cannot create a world where 50% of human beings are excluded from the benefits of research and innovation,” Palt says.

To ensure a more equitable curation of fellows going forward, Palt adds that the programme will be split in two from 2019 – with one focusing on SA and the second programme, with a larger cohort of fellows, focusing on the rest of the pan-African region.

WHO ARE THEY?

Olanike Akinduyite – Federal University of Technology, Nigeria
Specialty: Computer science
Title of project: Fingerprint-based key-binding biometric cryptosystem

Rima Beesoo – University of Mauritius, Mauritius
Specialty: Biology – Biochemistry
Title of project: Investigation of the biochemical characterisation, antioxidant, antimicrobial and anticarcinogenic potentials of some selected marine invertebrate species

Takalani Cele – UNISA, South Africa
Specialty: Environmental science – Condensed matter physics
Title of project: Platinum group metals (PGM) nano-particles & hybrid nano-composites by gamma radiolysis/EISA

Dr. Marilize Everts – University of Pretoria, South Africa
Specialty: Mechanical engineering – Fluid mechanics
Title of project: Heat transfer and pressure drop of high viscosity fluids in solar receiver tubes

Charlene Goosen – Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Specialty: Health sciences – Epidemiology
Title of project: Effect of oral iron supplementation on the gut microbiome in HIV-infected children

Lerato Hlaka – University of Cape Town, South Africa
Specialty: Health sciences – Infectious diseases
Title of project: Characterization of minor groove binders (MGBs) as novel lead compounds and the use of non-ionic surfactant vesicles (NIVs) to improve their efficacy for treatment of tuberculosis

Harshna Jivan – University of Witwatersrand, South Africa
Specialty: Physics – Nuclear physics
Title of project: Study on the influence of nuclear deformation on the pygmy dipole resonance in samarium isotopes

Dr. Priscilla Kolibea Mante – Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana
Specialty: Environmental science – Neuroscience
Title of project: Anticonvulsant activity of cryptolepine and its solid-lipid nanoparticles in the management of neurocysticercosis-induced epilepsy

Gladys Mosomtai – International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), Kenya
Specialty: Environmental science – Geoscience
Title of project: Influence of landscape dynamics, microclimate variability and agronomic practices in the coffee pathosystem of smallholder farms in Murang’a County, Kenya

Fiona Mumoki – University of Pretoria, Kenya
Specialty: Biology – Entomology
Title of project: Role of brood pheromones in inhibiting dominance in Apis mellifera capensis reproductive parasites

Shalena Naidoo – Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Specialty: Health sciences – Immunology – Virology
Title of project: Longitudinal perspective on the impact of immune Status on the HIV-1 latent reservoir and neurocognitive outcomes in virologically suppressed children

Olaperi Okuboyejo – University of Witwatersrand, Nigeria
Specialty: Computer science – Artificial intelligence
Title of project: Enhanced automatic feedback generation for the learning of regular expressions

Andrea Wilson – University of Pretoria, South Africa
Specialty: Biology – Genomics
Title of project: Sexual reproduction in Huntiella species

Madelien Wooding – University of Pretoria, South Africa
Specialty: Chemistry – Health sciences
Title of project: Chemical communication between the malaria carrying mosquito, anopheles arabiensis, and its human host