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#STEMStories: Nasreen, Researcher, Lecturer, Small-business owner, South Africa

Nasreen Peer is a researcher, lecturer and a small-business owner. Clearly a woman who wears many hats. Peer currently lectures at Stellenbosch University, where she also carries out her research. Her work focuses on the biological and ecological study of coastal habitats, specifically the mangrove and rocky shore ecosystems.

A few years ago, Peer realised the importance of listening to one’s emotions or ‘gut feeling’, “ethics is becoming more important to me as I grow as a researcher. I also realised that I don’t want to be an academic. Academics represent something unattainable and most people don’t relate to you.” She wishes to bridge the gap between the general public and scientists which is part of the reason she started her company. The company, Argonaut Science (a citizen science, capacity development and consulting company), is one that Peer cofounded with her partner and husband Dr Nelson Miranda.

Peer has recently started to include a social aspect in an attempt to incorporate indigenous knowledge into her investigations after having spent some time in Mozambique; “I realised that there are huge sources of indigenous knowledge in our countries and we need to learn to incorporate these into our fields in an accurate and respectful way.” Peer also realised that including local communities was necessary, “our conservation initiatives are never going to succeed unless we started working with communities, developing what they’ve already built instead of shutting them out with fences.”

Peer is very passionate about her job, “I love being a scientist, asking questions, looking for answers but the idea that southern Africa has something new and different to offer the world in terms of research and conservation is what excites me most these days.” In fact, despite certain hurdles, she has a positive outlook on STEM in Africa, “While there has been (and still is) an overwhelming amount of parachute research on our continent, there are so many incredible scientists taking charge of research in their own countries now. African researchers are becoming more and more internationally-recognised for their contributions to science.”

Peer’s experience as a female in the STEM field has largely been positive, but she understands that it might not the same for other females and she hopes to make a difference, “I love the fact that I can dedicate my career to creating the same safe space I had for other females (and leading others to do the same, of course).”

She has learnt that life is all about balance, “work hard but give yourself a break in between, push for your career but not at the cost of your mental health. Surround yourself with supportive people… who will be honest with you and who are not afraid to disagree with you. These people help you to grow and keep you humble.” Peer is really strict about maintaining work-life balance, “I leave everything work-related in the office… go home to my family, cook a great meal, exercise and unwind… [work related] thoughts cross your mind at night but it’s easy enough to jot down ideas. I find myself refreshed in the morning excited to get to work and start my day.”

Read more about our Geeky Girl, Nasreen Peer, in a multifaceted interview below about a multifaceted woman and her dynamic contribution to the STEM world.

1. Describe what your work entails.

I am currently a lecturer and researcher at Stellenbosch University. My work entails the biological and ecological study of coastal habitats, more specifically mangrove and rocky shore ecosystems. More recently I have started to include a social aspect trying to incorporate indigenous knowledge into our investigations. I have also co-founded Argonaut Science (a citizen science, capacity development and consulting company) with my partner and husband Dr Nelson Miranda.

2. Describe your STEM journey.

I have always had excellent mentors, supervisors and role models. I learnt very early on to develop a thick skin, to push emotion aside and to always focus on the job. A few years ago I started to realise the importance of actually listening to your emotions or ‘gut feeling’ sometimes. I’m learning that it’s all about a balance and that we can’t put everything aside for the sake of the job. Ethics is becoming more important to me as I grow as a researcher. I also realised that I don’t want to be an academic. Academics represent something unattainable and most people don’t relate to you. I wanted to help bridge that gap between the general public and scientists which is partly why we started our company.

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

I love being a scientist, asking questions, looking for answers but the idea that southern Africa has something new and different to offer the world in terms of research and conservation is what excites me most these days.

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

My experience has been positive. There is a large focus on developing females in STEM careers these days and I am excited to be part of that. I know this is not the same for all females in STEM and I love the fact that I can dedicate my career to creating the same safe space I had for other females (and leading others to do the same, of course).

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

It’s all about balance. Work hard but give yourself a break in between, push for your career but not at the cost of your mental health. Surround yourself with supportive people, I don’t mean cheerleaders, I mean people who will be honest with you and who are not afraid to disagree with you. These people help you to grow and keep you humble. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

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”?

I’m extremely excited about science in Africa. While there has been (and still is) an overwhelming amount of parachute research on our continent, there are so many incredible scientists taking charge of research in their own countries now. African researchers are becoming more and more internationally-recognised for their contributions to science.

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

Spending some time in Mozambique changed everything for me. I realised that there are huge sources of indigenous knowledge in our countries and we need to learn to incorporate these into our fields in an accurate and respectful way. I also realised that our conservation initiatives are never going to succeed unless we started working with communities, developing what they’ve already built instead of shutting them out with fences.

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

Strict work hours! The job is exciting and sometimes you really want to take work home but I’ve learnt the hard way that a balance is important. At 5 pm, I leave everything work-related in the office (unless we’re in the field then work hours don’t necessarily apply), go home to my family, cook a great meal, exercise and unwind. Sure thoughts cross your mind at night but it’s easy enough to jot down ideas. I find myself refreshed in the morning excited to get to work and start my day.

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

I don’t have one single role model. The people I look up to are researchers who are nice people aside from being good at what they do. These are people who treat EVERYONE with respect. I also really admire scientists who are outspoken and willing to engage about difficult topics, people who can graciously accept criticism and be diplomatic about their disagreements. These are the qualities I work towards.

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

You can follow my research on ResearchGate (Nasreen Peer), Instagram (@naszoea) or Twitter (@nasreenpeer). You can also find out more about our general work activities on the Argonaut Science Facebook and Instagram pages (@argonautscience).

Nasreen Peer 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