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#STEMStories: Soji, PhD candidate in Agriculture, South Africa

Name: Soji Zimkhitha

Role/Occupation: PhD candidate in Agriculture, Animal Science (University of Fort Hare)

Country: South Africa

Soji Zimkhitha is a PhD candidate in Agriculture, a department under the Animal Science division at the University of Fort Hare.

Zimkhitha’s work focuses on Meat Science, in particular Red Meat Classification in South Africa. Her research involves finding ways of improving red meat classification to meet current consumer meat consumption trends.

Zimkhitha loved Agriculture since high school, although only a handful of people chose to study the subject and  “were always teased... being referred as garden girls and boys”, she recalls. However this did not lower her self-esteem as it was her favourite subject.

She pursued a BSc and MSc in Agriculture (Animal Science) at the University of Fort Hare from which she graduated with Cum Laude for both. Zimkhitha is currently in her final year of study with her PhD being funded by National Research Foundation and Meat Industry Trust. Thus far, she has published several scientific research papers and has presented her research both locally and internationally in various countries including Germany, France, Thailand, Ireland and Namibia.

The accolades for her work do not stop here. Zimkhitha  achieved a merit award for being the best Animal research student in country (2014); the bronze medal for a meritorious MSc dissertation and relevant publications in the field of animal science (2016) and has been selected as one of the Top 6 most qualified young scientists in South Africa to attend the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting in Germany (2018).

“Finding solutions through research is what excites me,” says Zimkhitha and each morning, “I wake up determined of finding out alternative solutions to existing problems concerned with meat consumption especially in the midst of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases,” she emphasises. Her long term goal is to improve the SA meat industry until it is a competitive country in global  meat markets.

Zimkhitha feels that it’s not easy being a woman in the field of Agriculture and says that “as much as the sponsors are investing so much on ‘women in science’... at the end of the day we [women] sit at home with our degrees unless you trade for a job either with sex or money.” Hence many female students enrol for postgraduate studies as it was their only option after trying so hard to find employment.

Zimkhitha believes that science is neither “for men nor for women, it’s for those who want it, all you need as a woman to succeed in science is a victorious mind-set.”

She feels that Africa can do more and the continent has many resources and skills, but maintains that the main problem is that “Africa likes to trade its wealth to developed countries instead of innovating itself with the land full of opportunities it has.”

In terms of work-life balance, she spends 65% of her time on work and 35% on her social life and to Zimkhitha “this is balance because at the end of the day I need to work to have the life I desire,” she states.

Zimkhitha says she strives to be a better person everyday and if  “I cannot stand in front of the mirror and tell myself ‘I am proud of you, Zimkhitha for the person you have become and are still striving to become’, then no matter what other people say or do in trying to inspire me won’t work, inspiration has to be within you, and it has to be your everyday garment.”

Bite into this meaty interview below with the very determined, focused and hardworking Geeky Girl,  Soji Zimkhitha.

  1. Describe what your work entails.

My work focuses on Meat Science, in particular Red Meat Classification in South Africa. In my research I am trying to find ways of improving the South African red meat classification to meet the current consumer trends in meat consumption which are influenced by socioeconomic and cultural diversities. 

  1. Describe your STEM journey.

I have always loved Agriculture since high school hence I decided to pursue a career in it. Although few of us in High School (4 out of 52 students in my class) studied Agriculture and were always teased and being referred as garden girls and boys it did not really bother me or lower my self-esteem  as it was the subject I mostly enjoyed. I studied my BSc and MSc in Agriculture (Animal Science) at the University of Fort Hare which I graduated for both with Cum Laude in 2014 & 2016 respectively. I then enrolled for PhD in 2016 and I am currently doing my final year. I was sponsored by the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality for my BSc, DAAD for MSc, National Research Foundation and Meat Industry Trust for my PhD. I have published four scientific research papers and have presented my research in various research collaborations and conferences locally and internationally in countries which include Germany, France, Thailand, Ireland and Namibia.  

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

Finding solutions through research is what excites me, every morning I wake up determined of finding out alternative solutions to existing problems concerned with meat consumption especially in the midst of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases that are currently escalating and associated with meat consumption. I am so keen to helping the meat industry satisfy the consumer while also ensuring food security through communal or smallholder farming. My long term goal is to improve the SA meat industry to being a competitive country in meat markets globally. 

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

Being a woman in Agriculture is not that easy, especially considering the high unemployment rate in our department of Agriculture in South Africa. In as much as the sponsors are investing so much on “women in science” and are being given more attention academically, at the end of the day we sit at home with our degrees unless you trade for a job either with sex or money. Hence other students had decided to enrol for postgraduate studies, not that they wanted to but because it was their only option after trying so hard to find employment. Some women who have managed to secure Jobs in Agriculture had to compromise their being for success and it’s so devastating. Even at Universities you would find lecturers taking advantage of Female students (in general). This is mostly experienced by South African female students unfortunately. 

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

Science is not for Men nor for Women, it’s for those who want it, all you need as a Woman to succeed in Science is a Victorious mind-set, let no intimidation by men give you a complex inferiority state of mind and being, women can do more than expected. 

  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”?

Africa can do most, there are a lot of resources and skills in this continent and all it needs is a chance to do small things in a great way. Africa likes to trade its wealth to developed countries instead of innovating itself with the land full of opportunities it has. We need to work well together as the African continent, we need to have the same goal to achieve a secure continent in all spheres.  

  1. Have there been any milestone moments or eureka moments in your career?
    • I had been awarded a merit award for being the best Animal student in South Africa in 2014,
    • Bronze medal for a meritorious Masters dissertation and relevant publications in the field of animal science in 2016,
    • Been selected among the Top 6 most qualified young scientists in South Africa to attend the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting in Germany in 2018 
  1. How do you maintain a work-life balance?

Focus and determination on my priority of being a successful woman in Agriculture makes it easy for me to have a work-life balance. I spend 65% of my time worrying about my work and 35% on my social life and to me this is balance because at the end of the day I need to work to have the life I desire. 

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

I always find it hard to answer this question, well I do not have a role model, I am my own role model and I wake up every day with an earnest  to be an improved person than yesterday. If I cannot stand in front of the mirror and tell myself that “I am proud of you Zimkhitha for the person you have become and are still striving to become”, then no matter what other people say or do in trying to inspire me won’t work, inspiration has to be within you, and it has to be your everyday garment. At the end of the day everyone can be your role model because everyone has something you like about, but no individual has everything that inspires you, but you have the power to package every little piece of inspiration within self and become your own role model.  

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

Linkedin:  Soji zimkhitha

Twitter Handle:  @zimmysoji

Soji Zimkhitha 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