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#STEMStories: Senamile, Nuclear Physicist, South Africa

Name: Senamile Masango

Role/Occupation: Nuclear Physicist, Founder and Chairperson of Women in Science and Engineering in Africa (Wise Africa).

Country: South Africa

Senamile Masango is a nuclear physicist and the founder and chairperson of Women in Science and Engineering in Africa (Wise Africa). Wise Africa is a non profit organization that aims to provide leadership and role models to young people aspiring to enter the fields of science and engineering as well as lobbies for the advancement of women in science and engineering and highlights and addresses the problems that are faced by women in these fields.

Whilst in high school, Masango was introduced to astronomy by her geography teacher and discovered that people could travel to space. She remembers being intrigued by the universe and where we come from, “I wanted to be a first African to travel to space,” she recalls. 

She completed matric at Mlokothwa High school and went on to study towards a BSc Physics and Electronics at the University of Zululand. After the unfortunate loss of her daughter, Sindisiwe, she decided to pursue further studies and studied Nuclear Physics. She then joined the Coulex group led by Professor Orce at the University of the Western Cape. Masango recently submitted her Masters thesis in Nuclear Physics which focused on the structure of the nucleus with the method called Coulomb excitation. She also came back to South Africa to collect data for the PhD research which she will continue in Canada. 

Masango is ecstatic about the contribution that her research is adding to the physics body as much remains undiscovered about the nucleus and as she excitedly relays, “until date no one knows the formula of a nuclear force.” Masango was not only part of the first African led experiment at CERN, but was also the only female in the group, which ultimately lead her to receive the title of the first African woman to conduct the first African led experiment at CERN. She received this acknowledgment from the president. 

She feels that being a woman in the STEM field is not an easy feat, “no one believes in you, you have to prove that you are capable and work two times harder.” She believes that girls are discouraged at an early age from STEM fields either because they believe that science and engineering is just too difficult or that it is simply not for them. 

As a continent in terms of STEM, Masango feels that Africa still has a long way to go, “we are not there yet because people are still struggling to access basics needs of such as food, water, electricity… so our government is focusing on that,” she explains. The other challenge she believes the continent is facing is infrastructure and elaborates that, “we all know that science is a practical subject, [yet] most of the schools don’t have science facilities like laboratories.” Hence she is also motivated by the use of the platform provided by Wise Africa to make a difference and feels that she is “making education fashionable.” 

Read more about Senamile Masango below, a Geeky Girl who dreamt about space travel as a student and now affords other young people the ability to dream through her work and organisation. 

  1. Describe what your work entails. 

I am a founder and chairperson of Women in Science and Engineering in Africa (Wise Africa), a non profit organization that is registered under the Department of Social Development in South Africa. The aim is to provide leadership and role models for young people wishing to enter the fields of science and engineering, to lobby for the advancement of women in science and engineering, to raise the profile of women scientists and engineers and to highlight and address problems that are faced by women in these fields. 

  1. Describe your STEM journey. 

When I was in Grade 8, my geography teacher Mr. Ziqubu introduced us to astronomy and I learned that there are people who travel to space. I was intrigued by the universe and where we come from. I wanted to be a first African to travel to space, but Mark Shuttleworth beat me to it in 2002. 

After completing matric at Mlokothwa High school in 2003, I went on to study BSc Physics and Electronics at the University of Zululand. In January 2016, I lost my daughter Sindisiwe in  a car accident then after her funeral I decided to pursue my studies and studied Nuclear Physics; in 2017 I joined the Coulex group at the University of Western Cape that is led by Professor Orce. I just submitted my Masters thesis in Nuclear Physics (I am studying the structure of the nucleus with the method called Coulomb excitation) and I just came back from Canada to collect my PhD data. 

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

What excites me through my research work is to contribute my findings to the physics body since the nucleus is still under research, until this date no one knows the formula of a nuclear force. What motivates me when I get out of bed is to go and make a difference through Wise Africa, we are making education fashionable. 

 

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

It not easy to be a woman in this field; we have a long way to go, no one believes in you, you have to prove that you are capable and work two times extra harder. 

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

Girls are discouraged at an early age that science and engineering is difficult or it is not for them; young girls must close their ears and believe on themselves. 

  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”? 

As Africa we still have a long way to go, we are not there yet because people are still struggling to access the basics needs of such as food, water, electricity etc., so our government is focusing on that. The other challenge we are facing is infrastructure; we all know that science is a practical subject, most of the schools don’t have science facilities like laboratories. 

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

I was part of the first African led experiment at CERN and I was the only female in the group, that has lead me to hold a title as the first African woman to conduct the first African led experiment at CERN. I even received an acknowledgment from the former President, President Jacob Zuma. 

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

I plan ahead, I set career goals, I exercise and try to eat healthy, I value time, I do make time for myself, I read and have a willing heart to learn. 

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

My late father Dr JJA Masango, he is the one who planted a seed of education in me and I am also inspired by him. He was all about giving back to his community. 

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

My page on Facebook:  Senamile Masango

Instagram: senamilemasango

Twitter Handle: senamile33

Senamile Masango 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