We recently spoke Dr Usisipho Feleni, a Senior Lecturer and Applied Electrochemistry Thematic Area Leader at the Institute for Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability (iNanoWS) in the School of Science at the University of South Africa. She is also a visiting lecturer at the University of the Western Cape where she teaches Principles and Applications of Nanostructured Materials using Small Angle X-ray Scattering as part of the MSc Nanoscience degree programme. 

Feleni’s research focuses on tuneable nanocomposite chalcogenide materials and their application in the development of sensors for biomedical and environmental analyses. She is a member of some of the most prestigious national and international organisations in the world focused on the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. This includes serving as an Associate Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry (AMRSC), a member of the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS), a full member of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD), and a member of the International Society of Electrochemistry (ISE). In 2021, she was awarded the 2021/2022 University of Michigan African Presidential Scholars (UMAPS) Fellowship, and in the past has also received the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Sub-Saharan Africa Doctoral Fellowship Award and the 2016 South African Women in Science TATA Doctoral Fellowship Award.

Feleni is a first-generation student and says that her family found it “very difficult to accept that it was appropriate for a girl to spend so many years studying up to the PhD level”.

“But my mother, a primary school teacher, told me about the importance of science.”

In January 2018 , Feleni received a DSI-NRF Innovation Doctoral Scholarship and a DSI-NRF-DHET Scarce Skills Development Fund Postdoctoral Fellowship for her PhD and postdoctoral studies respectively. 

“Without the NRF scholarship, I would not have been able to continue my studies to PhD level.  I obtained an NRF Travel Grant award which enabled me to attend an international conference during my PhD studies and this year received a NRF-South Africa Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) grant for a community engagement STEM project in the Eastern Cape.”

We sat down with Feleni to learn about her inspirational journey of building a career in science as a woman. 

Dr Feleni, how did your love for science and technology begin?

My love for science started while  solving problems associated with healthcare since I lost a family member who was on antiretroviral (ARV) medication.   So I studied BSc Chemical Sciences up to PhD level. 

What were some of the challenges you have faced as a woman in the STEM field and how did  you overcome them?

There are notions by some people that women  are not capable of studying up to PhD level, such as the expectation to get married after completing undergraduate studies.  This is why women scientists work hard and often do extra work to achieve our goals and to prove our point that women can achieve anything and be scientists. One of the things that I do to ensure that I succeeded is to put a lot of efforts in teaching and learning and research. What do I mean by that, these are the core important things that will make one succeed (research include attainment of research grant, publishing and fellowships). Most importantly focusing on research that will solve the South African problems/global problems. 

Do you think it is important to develop and equip learners with skills for STEM fields and why?

It is important to   motivate young learners and students to go into STEM fields. The government is implementing a National System of Innovation (NSI) while  the National Development Plan (NDP) aims at solving socioeconomic issues and creating jobs for the younger generation. Basically equipping youth with skills. Technology can be used to create jobs for young scientists, including South African scientists as a whole. Nurturing junior researchers is therefore imperative at university level.

What is the status of inequality in South Africa and how can it be solved specifically during the pandemic? 

Community development and upliftment in communities like townships can happen through strengthening education curricula. Under-resourced village and township schools prevent learners from gaining practical experience, leading to an educational gap of understanding how research development happens among learners who want to enter STEM fields. One way  to improve education is to involve educational and community leaders when discussing curriculum improvements, especially in provinces such as the Eastern Cape.  I work with the Applied Electrochemistry Thematic Area and under my leadership we are opening the Cofivamba Science Centre exhibit, which focuses on developing technology, equipping learners and teachers while incorporating science into the curriculum.  It is aimed at grades 8 to 12 and aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development goals. I also presented an online seminar for the National Science Week, but most learners could not join given a lack of access to online streaming platforms. So, we must understand the realities of  learners and  equip teachers with skills to increase access to resources and technology. Platforms such as Zoom could be used to effectively boost access at rural and township schools. Additionally we need to purchase furniture, laptops and improve connectivity so that affected schools can develop.  

What role do you think the NDP has in developing a younger generation of women in STEM fields?

We are aiming at meeting the agenda for the NDP by  2030.  Given that we are moving toward the fourth industrial revolution, it is important to scale technological innovative research methods to enhance science for young women. It is important to have developed young scientists and researchers by 2030 so that by 2063 we have unleashed the potential of female scientists and junior researchers leading in that area.

Lastly, what words of encouragement do you have for  young people, and particularly young women, who want to enter STEM fields?

To  young women who do science subjects, ensure that you obtain  good marks in subjects such as Mathematics, Physics, Science and Biology in order to gain university entrance. High  marks in high school will allow learners to study any degree in a STEM field. Using the Sustainable Development Goals  while focusing on national problems in South Africa will allow us to find innovative solutions that will assist the country. By having more young women obtaining undergraduate degrees, more will gain access to postgraduate studies, which will help our country overcome major inequalities, and young women will play a key role in that recovery.