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#STEMStories: Sadhna, Lecturer, Researcher and Academic Coordinator, South Africa

Name: Sadhna Mathura

Role/Occupation: Lecturer, Researcher and Academic Coordinator, School of Chemistry, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Country: South Africa

Sadhna Mathura is a lecturer, researcher and academic coordinator at the School of Chemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand. As a lecturer, she teaches chemistry to both undergraduate and postgraduate students. As an academic coordinator, she designs, prepares and develops course material & assessments, including teaching students how to conduct high-quality research and how to present their findings to the scientific community. And finally, as a researcher, Mathura pursues her own research interests, which focuses on understanding bilirubin chemistry as it pertains to neonatal jaundice. Jaundice in babies is potentially detrimental to brain development as bilirubin is neurotoxic. Her work addresses the need for better diagnostic methods.

As a child, Mathura annoyed everyone with her questions. This behaviour prompted a relative to suggest that she should be a scientist considering the amount of questions she asks. Mathura didn’t know what ‘science’ was, but to an eight year old girl, the prospect of being paid to ask questions sounded brilliant! She began her ‘research’ on where and how she could do this for a living with the help of an  Encyclopaedia, which she refers to as the ‘Google of the 80s’ and found out all about science and the different STEM fields.

Mathura completed matric at Tongaat Secondary in Kwa-Zulu Natal. After having saved enough money, she was able to send her applications to the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, where she completed her undergraduate degree, followed by her Honours and Masters degrees, specialising in Genetics (with Forestry) and Chemistry. Subsequently, Mathura moved to Johannesburg to pursue a Doctorate in Bioinorganic Chemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). Mathura was ultimately awarded the prestigious Claude Leon Fellowship to undertake postdoctoral research at Wits where she started to develop her current research interests.

“I get to ask questions and be curious about the world around me every single day. I then get to teach other people how to be curious and ask questions. Why wouldn’t I want to get out of bed in the morning!?” says an ecstatic Mathura as she jokes about operating her household kitchen as a laboratory as well.  “I’m doing what I love, so it’s not a “job”. It’s a space where I can both derive and add value,” she adds.

When she embarked on her PhD, she was the only female in the lab for the first couple of years; with time this has fortunately changed and the lab has many female science graduates and researchers. Mathura believes that, “It’s one thing to demand the support of an institution to raise the status of Women in Science, but it’s another thing when Women in Science actually support each other’s professional development.” She elaborates by citing a recent campus Women in Science event, which was eye opening and enriching in terms of meeting many women from different disciplines and learning from them, she states, “we need more of this.”

Mathura has observed that many women, herself included have a tendency to shy away from owning their achievements; possibly because it might seem more appropriate if someone else asserts their achievements. Her advice to young women is to “celebrate your achievements… We need to look inward for validation, not outward. If you can’t own your achievements, then you can’t own your failures. If you can’t own your failures, then how can you grow and become better?”

With regards to her opinion about the future of STEM in Africa, Mathura feels that “our people are fantastic at taking adversity and from it, creating opportunities... Africa as a continent has always been the land of opportunity.” She emphasises that academia is at a very interesting turning point at the moment as there is “this buzz around ‘Decolonisation of curricula’ and ‘Africanisation of curricula” and she is interested to see how it unfolds. 

Work- life balance is important to Mathura as she feels it makes her a better scientist and so she is strongly committed to maintaining it,  her strategy involves trying “to balance the ‘left brain’ with some ‘right brain’ pursuits to fuel [her] creativity such as writing poetry, playing an instrument, painting etc.”

Interestingly, Mathura shies away from having role models. She points out that she has two main reasons for this decision, “firstly, it’s easy to be disappointed by human fallibility… role models are human beings and human beings make mistakes... it’s hard to separate their mistakes from the reasons you looked up to them in the first place… Secondly, it doesn’t make sense… to follow someone else if you are trying to find your feet as a leader… So, instead of role models, I have role ideas. If I see a good idea... I watch, read, learn.”

Feed your curiosity by reading more about a curious Geeky Girl, Sadhna Mathura, who couldn’t stop asking questions and subsequently found herself a STEM career to feed her curiosity. 

  1. Describe what your work entails

My time is split between teaching, administration and research. As a higher education Lecturer, I teach Chemistry to undergraduate and postgraduate students. Teaching methods include lectures, seminars, tutorials, practical course demonstrations, e-learning etc.. I prepare and deliver the appropriate lecture content for a particular cohort of students, e.g. Chemistry for Engineers. As an Academic Coordinator, I design, prepare and develop course material & assessments, including new methods of teaching. I also teach students how to conduct high-quality research and present their findings to the scientific community. And lastly, as a Researcher, I pursue my own research interests in order to contribute to the wider research areas of my department. My current field of interest aims to understand bilirubin chemistry as it pertains to neonatal jaundice. The liver breaks down old red blood cells, and helps to excrete that what cannot be recycled. Bilirubin is one of those waste products that is excreted. However, when bilirubin builds up faster than your liver can help to excrete, then your skin takes on a yellow colour (jaundice). In babies, jaundice is quite common and can be detrimental to brain development since bilirubin is neurotoxic. There is a need for better diagnostic methods which is where my work comes in.

When I am not in the laboratory, I also put in energy into public engagement with Chemistry and the broader STEM field. I participate as a judge for symposia, I hold learning workshops and I guest-lecture at other institutions. 

  1. Describe your STEM journey.

It’s a fairly uncomplicated journey, I’m afraid. As a child, I annoyed everyone with my questions. So, a relative had said that it looked like I was going to be a scientist with all these questions. I didn’t know what ‘science’ was, but to an 8 year old, the prospect of being paid to ask questions sounded brilliant! So I consulted the ‘Google of the 80s’ (an Encyclopedia!) and read all about science and the different fields. On deciding which ones appealed to me, I promptly began to “research” where and how I could do it for a living. I learned that I had to take certain subjects in school, get certain grades in order to enter the learning institution of my choice and so on. So I completed my matric at Tongaat Secondary in Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN), I saved up money to send my applications through to what is now called University of KwaZulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg. I completed my undergrad, Honours and Masters degrees there specialising in Genetics (with Forestry) and Chemistry. This was in collaboration with the Institute for Commercial Forestry Research (ICFR). I subsequently moved to Johannesburg to read for a Doctorate in Bioinorganic Chemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). I was later awarded the prestigious Claude Leon Fellowship to undertake postdoctoral research where I started to develop my own research interests. Now I am employed at the School of Chemistry, Wits University where I teach and conduct research. 

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

I get to ask questions and be curious about the world around me every single day. I then get to teach other people how to be curious and ask questions. I get to solve problems in a lab by collaborating with some really brilliant people who have great ideas. Why wouldn’t I want to get out of bed in the morning!? Being a scientist is so much a part of me that, much to my partner’s horror, I even operate our kitchen like a lab! Doing what you love is important because when things get challenging (and everything gets challenging at some point), it’s your passion that carries you through to the other side of that challenge. I’m doing what I love, so it’s not a “job”. It’s a space where I can both derive and add value. 

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

When I started off my PhD, I was the only female in my lab for the first two years or so. Now, it’s really encouraging to see so many female science graduates and researchers. It’s one thing to demand the support of an institution to raise the status of Women in Science, but it’s another thing when Women in Science actually support each other’s professional development. I was really encouraged to attend a Women in Science event on campus recently. It was supportive to see women from so many different disciplines who are doing great things in the world, but more importantly to learn how they were doing it. We need more of this. 

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

Celebrate your achievements. I’ve noticed many women (myself included) have a tendency to shy away from owning their achievements, almost like it’s gauche to say ‘I did that’. It’s as though it’s more “appropriate” if someone else says you’ve done well. We need to look inward for validation, not outward. If you can’t own your achievements, then you can’t own your failures. If you can’t own your failures, then how can you grow and become better? If you view your unique journey as one big learning experience, then it becomes easier to grow from your mistakes rather than taking it personally.

Also, learn to play a musical instrument or paint or something artistic- it does wonders for your creativity. Creativity is your fuel for scientific discoveries. 

  1. 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”?

Historically, I think Africa as a continent has always been the ‘land of opportunity’ when it comes to STEM; some of the fundamental mathematics and science concepts began here. So I’d say we’re pretty consistent when it comes to being leaders in these areas. I think our people are fantastic at taking adversity and from it, creating opportunities. What’s interesting now, is this buzz around ‘Decolonisation of curricula’ and ‘Africanisation of curricula’. I’m interested to see where we go with this. Interesting times…  

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

You know, when I started to answer this question, I began to list accolades and various things that I had achieved. But I think my true ‘Eureka!’ moment was when I was about 19 years old and I found the guts to knock on my Lecturer’s door to ask for vacation work. On my first day of work, it was as though I stepped into a different world where nothing else but the work mattered. When I saw these people getting excited (but like really excited!) about things they couldn’t even see, I said to myself, “I want a piece of that!”. By the time I had completed that project at the end of my contract, I knew all about that feeling and I was hooked! I signed up for lab work every vacation after that. I think once or twice, I even did the work for free because the training was far more valuable. It’s one thing to learn about what interests you in theory, but it’s a whole other ball-game to submerge yourself in it practically. That vacation work cemented my resolve to pursue this career path. 

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

I have an incredible partner who grounds me and keeps me centred. When I feel overwhelmed, I ask for help, and then I delegate. I try to balance the ‘left brain’ with some ‘right brain’ pursuits to fuel my creativity such as writing poetry, playing an instrument, painting etc. Having a work-life balance makes me a better scientist, so I try to commit to it as I would to anything else.   

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

This is probably going to sound strange, but I try not to have role models and for two reasons. Firstly, it’s easy to be disappointed by human fallibility; remember, role models are human beings, and human beings make mistakes. When they do, it’s often hard to separate their mistakes from the reasons why you looked up to them in the first place; then you either want to change yourself or them to fit a perception. It feels like a waste of energy and I also don’t want to put that kind of pressure on someone! Secondly, it doesn’t make sense to me to follow someone else if you are trying to find your feet as a leader. How do you find your unique truths and talents if you’re looking to someone else to provide those? Having said that, it doesn’t mean I operate in isolation. I am constantly learning new ideas from the world around me. Ideas can change, be shaped, improved upon and so on. It also means that a good idea can come from anywhere and anyone. So, instead of role models, I have role ideas. If I see a good idea, I say to myself, “Hm, now that’s a great idea! I wonder how they do that?” and then I watch, read, learn. 

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

LinkedIn: ResearchGate, OrcID.

Twitter Handle: I’m afraid that I do not have a Twitter account (nor Facebook)! I’m a bit of a social media hermit haha!

Sadhna Mathura 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