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#STEMStories: Edith, Molecular Plant Breeder, Zimbabwe

Edith Mugehu is a molecular plant breeder. Mugehu has always loved agriculture and opted to take agricultural science subjects at high school. However, Mugehu's journey has not been without hurdles, “I had to struggle to get my degrees due to economic handicaps but because of my desire to become a better version of myself I persevered until I acquired my education,” she recalls.  Mugehu thoroughly enjoys her job, “I get the chance to manipulate nature and apply scientific principles. Through my work I am given a chance to create plant life through scientific techniques which without would have been impossible.” Being a molecular plant breeder affords Mugehu an opportunity to enjoy nature both directly and through a microscope, “I count myself very fortunate to be able to be part of a hidden universe of microbial and molecular life which is unknown to most people.”

Mugehu believes that if your work involves something that you love it will be easier to meet your goals and targets, “my work comes naturally to me and this allows me to be as innovative as I can so that I can fulfil expectations without infringing on my personal life,” she explains.  

Mugehu co-leads a 30-person research service team which includes both project design and project facilitation. Her work involves the evaluation of genetic diversity among sugarcane accessions; the establishment and evaluation of a germplasm molecular profiling technique; the coordination of the molecular biology laboratory for the sugarcane industry and the supervision, scientific support and mentoring of undergraduate students as well as providing classical and molecular plant breeding support to the industry’s research and development portfolio. 

Mugehu major career milestone involved her establishing the first ever molecular laboratory for the Zimbabwe Industry in 2016. This was something which had never been established before and contributed immensely to the Zimbabwe Sugarcane Breeding Program.

Mugehu has faced her fair share challenges in the STEM field as a woman, “as a woman in a male dominated sector it is extremely difficult to convince a potential employer that you are just as capable as your male counterparts... yet I have managed to emerge as the more efficient and reliable person in each circumstance,” she explains. Her advice to young women entering the STEM field, “be brave and never lose yourself by trying to be a man. You and your authentic self are enough... You do not need to be masculine... your brilliant mind is adequate and never accept less than that.” Her overall opinion of STEM progress on the continent is positive, “Africa is the richest continent in terms of natural resources and more women rising and coming together to utilise these resources. Gradually the stereotypes and myths associated with women and careers will be deleted. The proportion of women in STEM will increase.”

Read about our Geeky Girl, Edith Mugehu in an inspirational interview that’s sweeter than sugar cane. 

1. Describe what your work entails.

  • Co-leading a 30-person research services team including project design and facilitation
  • Evaluation and establishment of a germplasm molecular profiling technique
  • Evaluation of genetic diversity among sugarcane accessions the industry’s gene bank
  • Coordination and establishment of first ever molecular biology laboratory for Zimbabwe sugarcane industry
  • Supervision, scientific support and mentoring of undergraduate students and Providing classical and molecular plant breeding support to the industry’s research and development portfolio. 

2. Describe your STEM journey.

I did not stumble into this career path because I have always loved agriculture. I took agricultural science subjects by choice in high school and from those early days I knew I would stay in that field. However, it hasn’t been easy. I had to struggle to get my degrees due to economic handicaps but because of my desire to become a better version of myself I persevered until I acquired my education.

3. What excites you about your job? What motivates you to get out of bed every morning?

I have always been in love with nature and science. Each day I get the chance to manipulate nature and apply scientific principles. Through my work I am given a chance to create plant life through scientific techniques which without would have been impossible. I get to experience the intense and rich diversity of nature both through the naked eye and through the microscope. I count myself very fortunate to be able to be part of a hidden universe of microbial and molecular life which is unknown to most people.

4. How would you describe your experience as a woman in the STEM space?

The challenges never stopped coming and they are still coming because as a woman in a male dominated sector it is extremely difficult to convince a potential employer that you are just as capable as your male counterparts. In many instances my employer has put more faith in a male than in me, yet I have managed to emerge as the more efficient and reliable person in each circumstance.

5. What advice would you give to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field?

Be brave and never lose yourself by trying to be a man. You and your authentic self are enough to make it in the STEM field. You do not need to be masculine to be in STEM, your brilliant mind is adequate and never accept less than that.

6. As a STEM woman in Africa, how do you foresee the growth and progress of STEM on the continent? Is Africa a “land of opportunity”?

The future of STEM is female. More women are venturing into STEM disciplines and in turn uplifting other women to improve female retention in these disciplines. Africa is the richest continent in terms of natural resources and more women rising and coming together to utilise these resources. Gradually the stereotypes and myths associated with women and careers will be deleted. The proportion of women in STEM will increase.

7. Have there been any milestone moments or eureka moments in your career?

I managed to establish the first ever molecular laboratory for the Zimbabwe Industry in 2016. This is something which had never been established before and contributed immensely to the Zimbabwe Sugarcane breeding program.

8. How do you maintain a work-life balance?

When your career is centred around something you love it becomes easy to meet goals and targets such that you never have to struggle for time. My work comes naturally to me and this allows me to be as innovative as I can so that I can fulfil expectations without infringing on my personal life. I also make sure that my personal life does not spill over into my career by setting clearly timed and defined personal life goals.

9. Who is your role model? Who inspires you?

Myself. I always use myself as an inspiration. Every time I come across a challenge I look back at situation where I would have conquered and I get inspiration from that. I always push myself by reminding my present self that I can be a better version of my past self.

10. Where can more information or insight into your work be found?

https://www.techwomen.org/techwomen-mentees/edith-mugehu

https://cs.lbl.gov/news-media/news/2018/cs-hosts-emerging-women-leaders/

https://owsd.net/member/mugehu-edith 

Twitter Handle: @EMugehu

Edith Mugehu interviewed by Dhruti Dheda

Dhruti Dheda is a Chemical Engineer with a strong interest in media and communication. She is the editor of the Engineers without Borders South Africa Newsletter and the Community Manager – South Africa and Regional Outreach for Geeky Girl Reality. If you wish to collaborate or network, contact her at dhruti@geekyreality.com or find her on twitter @dhrutidd