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#STEMStories: Safiyyah, PhD Student, South Africa

Name:  Safiyyah Iqbal

Role/Occupation: PhD Student at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand

Country: South Africa

Safiyyah Iqbal studied a Bachelor of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she majored in Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, all of which sparked her interested in Palaeontology and Form and Function. She then completed her BSc honours and MSc in Palaeontology under the supervision of Prof. Kristian Carlson and Prof. Fernando Abdala.

Iqbal is currently a PhD Student at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she is completing her doctoral studies in Palaeontology, under the supervision of Prof. Kristian Carlson, Prof. Fernando Abdala, Prof. Frank Kienhofer and Prof. Jonah Choiniere. Her research involves working on the Finite Element Analysis of Thrinaxodon liorhinus limb bones, which falls under the umbrella of cynodonts research.

Iqbal considers herself to be a bit of a tech freak and loves working on computers. Her current research combines her love for computers and palaeontology and involves using microCT scans of the specimens that undergo certain loading conditions in order to infer why there is a change in gait. Her research advances the techniques used in Palaeontology and is non-invasive as fossils are precious. At present , Iqbal can be described as a Functional Morphologist specialising in digital analysis.

When asked about her experience as a woman in the STEM space she says that “there are challenging days where you have to stand strong and know that you worked just as hard as the next person and deserve to be in the position that you are in.” She also emphasised having a strong support system and believes it to be “a bonus to any experience or trial that you need to overcome be it as a scientist or just as a female.” Her advice to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field is to “never give up no matter how hard the journey may be or obstacles you face. Always remember where you started, where you are and where you need to be.” In her personal experience, she is always filled with courage when she recalls her parents’ tears of joy and the huge smiles when her name was called for the reception of her degree.

Iqbal considers the milestones in her career to be the precious moments where everything makes sense and seems like a blessing or reward for all the hardships she has had to overcome.

As a religious individual in a science environment, Iqbal believes that having “full faith in the Almighty, knowing and appreciating everything from a creation point of view makes managing [her] personal life and career easier”. At times, especially around deadlines, when the balance is threatened, having parents and friends who encourage and motivate her helps to maintain the balance.

Read more about Safiyyah Iqbal, a hardworking humble Geeky Girl, who combines the old with the new, palaeontology with computers, as she works as a Functional Morphologist specialising in digital analysis. 

  1. Describe what your work entails.

I am working on the Finite Element Analysis of Thrinaxodon liorhinus limb bones and more broadly cynodonts. I am a bit of a tech freak and love working on computers. My current research involves microCT scans of the specimens that undergo certain loading conditions in order to infer why there is a change in gait. My research advances the techniques used in Palaeontology and is non-invasive as fossils are precious. I am now a Functional Morphologist specialising in digital analysis.

  1. Describe your STEM journey.

I started studying for my Bachelor of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2009, where I majored in Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences and thus became very interested in Palaeontology and Form and Function. I completed my BSc honours and MSc in Palaeontology under the supervision of Prof. Kristian Carlson and Prof. Fernando Abdala. Currently, I am completing my PhD in Palaeontology, under the supervision of Prof. Kristian Carlson, Prof. Fernando Abdala, Prof. Frank Kienhofer and Prof. Jonah Choiniere.

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

That I could make a difference in science. I could be a motivation to other Muslim female scientists.

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

There are challenging days where you have to stand strong and know that you worked just as hard as the next person and deserve to be in the position that you are in. But having a strong support system is always a bonus to any experience or trial that you need to overcome be it as a scientist or just as a female.

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

Never give up no matter how hard the journey may be or obstacles you face. Always remember where you started, where you are and where you need to be. Think of the end result. Personal experience: seeing the tears of joy in my parents eyes and the huge smiles on their faces as my name was called for my degree.

  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”?

I personally think any land is a land of opportunity, it lies within us. I do hope that the growth of women in STEM becomes exponential. As a female, we are capable of anything. We are mothers, sisters, daughters and well establish career individuals. And all this can be done as long as we see our potential and go for it.

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

Milestones...moments where everything makes sense and the blessing/reward for all the hardships are given...Most definitely.

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

I am a practicing Muslim female in science who has full faith in The Almighty, knowing and appreciating everything as from a creation point of view makes managing my personal life and my career easier to manage. Sometimes the balance does go off, especially around deadlines but having my parents and friends who always encourage and motivate me always help to balance the stressful life.

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

Both my parents have always been my role models that have greatly influenced me. Growing up with their teachings from our Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) and watching them go through everyday life inspired me to be like them. Proving that I should never give up and always strive to my full potential.

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

My MSc is published on Wiredspace.wits.ac.za. I am currently completing two more publications. And feel free to contact me for any information at safiyyahiqbal@gmail.com

Twitter: @Safz_Rapunzel

Safiyyah Iqbal  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