African girls and women in STEM confront a number of hurdles, including a lack of resources, gender bias, and a lack of visibility. Nonetheless, others are defying the odds to become excellent in their profession, making significant contributions to the growth of science and technology. According to the World Bank, females account for 30% of STEM graduates in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Nomhle Ngwenya is one of the few African ladies motivating young African females to pursue STEM fields. She was the University of the Witwatersrand’s science faculty’s youngest Ph.D. graduate last year. She also became the youngest academic to receive a Ph.D. in science at the age of 25. According to News24, the South African was also the first Black woman in Wits history to go straight from an honours program to a Ph.D.
Ngwenya, who grew up wanting a career in geography, said she never imagined making history in academics. She was at the time very interested in how the environment or geography affects society and vice versa. “Geography is such a multidisciplinary subject. It’s not just climate change, but economic development, society and more. You get everything in one component. That’s why I enjoyed geography even from my high school days,” she said to News24.
Ngwenya enrolled at Wits in 2015 for a BA degree in sociology and geography, which she completed in 2017 before continuing on to a bachelor of science honours degree in geography. The specialist degree, according to News24, “looked at sustainability science, water science, and human geography components, including environmental management and other rarely covered topics.”
Ngewenya’s honors year study topic was public participation and stakeholder engagement in carbon capture and storage, according to the source. Her research project went very well, and her supervisor, Professor Danny Simatele, thought the level of study and detail that went into it was above and beyond honors level. He then advised Ngwenya to bypass the master’s program and instead enroll in a three-year Ph.D. program.
Indeed, in addition to her academic abilities, her supervisor, whom she views as “amazing,” contributed to her success. According to the young female researcher, her supervisor ensured that they had deadlines and that they worked within those limits. “But it also helps to have someone who understands the research process, how to conduct a thesis, and the different components of compiling the thesis,” she said, encouraging undergraduate students to continue their studies after receiving a degree.
Ngwenya received a lot of support from her parents, who spent heavily in her education because she was the only child. But she claims she was never trained to believe she isn’t capable or has the capacity to be whatever she wants to be. While most parents bought toys for their children, Ngwenya told Nature Africa that her father usually bought her books to read, while her mother instilled in her principles of perseverance and hard work.
Their guidance has enabled her to succeed today as one of Africa’s young female STEM scholars. Ngwenya is passionate about climate finance and climate issues in Africa, believing that “because we are the most impacted continent, we need to be at the forefront in terms of coming up with innovative solutions to address the challenges that we face in our continent.”