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#STEMStories: Tozama, Project Director, South Africa

Name: Dr Tozama Qwebani-Ogunleye

Role/Occupation: Project Director, Vaal University of Technology, Dihlare Remedy Pty Ltd.

Country: South Africa

Dr Tozama Qwebani-Ogunleye is the Project Director, Vaal University of Technology, Dihlare Remedy Pty Ltd. At Dihlare Remedy, they are a bridging knowledge and innovation gap that is related to the product development and commercialisation of Traditional Medicine. The main aim is to  make African Traditional Medicine easily accessible and recognised alongside mainstream healthcare. Qwebani-Ogunleye is one of the pioneers in South Africa who are involved in the development of quality control protocols for traditional medicines and the development of herbal formulations based on indigenous knowledge gained while working alongside the community. Qwebani-Ogunleye says that being part of something bigger than herself motivates her, “Traditional Medicine  is only beginning to be acceptable as an alternative health system in South Africa...Research, innovation and commercialization will increase the potential of African Traditional Medicine management and treatment of priority communicable and non-communicable diseases.”

Qwebani-Ogunleye's journey started with her love for mathematics, “my adolescent afternoons were spent preparing for the Maths 24 School Challenge… My passion for maths, along with my family’s support, culminated in me representing my school at a national level at the Maths 24 School Challenge.” Her passion for science started after she read about penicillin and how it was discovered by chance, “I started to imagine myself in the lab and wearing safety glasses and in search of a cure for something,” she explains. She would later get an opportunity to represent South Africa at a youth science event in Vienna, Austria; where she would meet young scientists from all around the world and rub shoulders with Austrian and South African dignitaries. This she believes set her on her path to being a scientist.

Her arrival at the University of Cape Town (UCT) was a bitter sweet experience. Sweet because she was able to see and learn new things; and bitter because of the realisation of the lack of science laboratory facilities she was exposed to at high school. Most of her colleagues were well acquainted with the tools in the laboratories, tools which until then she had only seen as a picture in a textbook,  “I had never seen a microscope before, let alone touched one or used one. I spent the whole of the first year trying to catch up with the rest of my classmates…” She completed both her undergraduate and Masters degrees at UCT, followed by a PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand through a studentship with CSIR. She then worked at CSIR for 6 years, TUT for 2 years and is currently based at VUT, during which she volunteered in many projects that involved the youth, “the youth is the hope of our nation and I would like to continue to add my positive contribution in youth empowerment,” she elaborates.

Qwebani-Ogunleye has thus far enjoyed her experience as a woman in the STEM space, despite many viewing her position as a problematic juxtaposition, “I am an African woman in an African country where modern ideas fight with the traditional for space in an ever-changing society… I choose to see it as an opportunity. I have looked for opportunities within my challenges.” She feels that one of the most significant parts of her career is gaining the vast knowledge that the traditional health practitioners have with regards to indigenous plants. “It is remarkable and laudable. They might not know the scientific name/ English name of the herbs but when you speak in our vernacular with them you start to appreciate the wisdom that has been passed from generation to the next in our communities,” she elaborates.

Qwebani-Ogunleye feels that perhaps gender discrimination is not out of intent but rather out of ignorance, “the challenge is that gender equality is seen as a nice to have than a human right. To drink fresh water, to breath in clean air, to go to school or to apply for a job without prejudice are all fundamental rights.”

Her advice to young girls is to do pure mathematics at high school as she finds that there are a number of girls “interested in Science after matric only to find out that they enrolled for maths literacy while at high school. You do have great potential and can be what you aspire to be if you are willing to put the effort and ask for help when necessary it is possible.”

She believes that Africa is a land of opportunity and that is progressing in STEM where research integrity, research morality and ethics are observed and practiced. She is grateful for the Biodiversity Act of 2004 and the type of informed consent allowed in country in terms of research, “it shows that we are ready to protect what is ours while also being globally relevant.”  The main challenge according to Qwebani-Ogunleye is that implementation occurs at a slow pace as if change is evitable; and that we still require innovative ways to bridge the gender gap in STEM.

Read more about our Geeky Girl, Tozama Qwebani-Ogunleye, who combines the old with the new, the traditional with the modern on a daily basis in an informative interview below. 

1. Describe what your work entails.

In the last decade, the higher education institutions have embarked on seeking ways to be relevant to communities and have a social positive impact. At Dihlare Remedy, we are a bridging knowledge and innovation that is related to product development and commercialisation of Traditional Medicine. The objective is to  have African Traditional Medicine easily accessible and recognised alongside mainstream healthcare. 

2. Describe your STEM journey.

I have always loved maths at school. My adolescent afternoons were spent preparing for the Maths 24 School Challenge. My parents bought the Maths 24 kit and each Sunday my parents, brother, sister and I would play. My passion for maths, along with my family’s support, culminated in me representing my school at a national level at the Maths 24 School Challenge. Mr Mthithala, my Maths teacher at Bizana village primary school was excellent in maths and added to my interest in it. My passion for science began after reading about penicillin and how it was discovered by chance. I started to imagine myself in the lab and wearing safety glasses and in search of a cure for something. Soon after, I won an opportunity at the age of 14 to represent South Africa at a youth science event in Vienna, Austria. I met young scientists from all over the world and rubbed shoulders with South African and Austrian dignitaries. This set me on my life’s path.

Arriving at the University of Cape Town (UCT) as a first year student brought with it pleasure and pain. Pleasure because I was at university seeing and learning new things, and pain because the reality of lack of access to a  science laboratory while in high school. While most of my classmates were acquainted with all the tools and materials in the different laboratories, many of these had up until then been nothing more than a word or a picture in a textbook to me. I had never seen a microscope before, let alone touched one or used one. I spent the whole of the first year trying to catch up with the rest of my classmates, staying at university until after five every day when they locked up. After my undergrad I proceeded to Masters at the UCT and then PhD at the university of the Witwatersrand through a studentship with CSIR. I worked for CSIR for 6 years, TUT for 2 years and now based at VUT. I have volunteered in a number of projects that works with the youth while as a student and now as a professional. The youth is the hope of our nation and I would like to continue to add my positive contribution in youth empowerment. 

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

To be among the pioneers in South Africa that are looking at developing quality control protocols for traditional medicines and developing herbal formulations based on indigenous knowledge while working with the community excites me.  Traditional Medicine  is only beginning to be acceptable as an alternative health system in South Africa and is a niche identified through the National Research Development Strategy (NRDS), the Department of Science and Technology Innovation Plan (TYIP) and the Bioeconomy Strategy. Research, innovation and commercialization will increase the potential of African Traditional Medicine management and treatment of priority communicable and non-communicable diseases. To be part of something bigger than myself motivates me. 

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

My experience has been great, I am enjoying learning, unlearning and teaching while on this journey. I am an African woman in an African country where modern ideas fight with the traditional for space in an ever-changing society. Many see this juxtaposition as problematic; I choose to see it as an opportunity. I have looked for opportunities within my challenges.

The stereotypes, social norms and pull her down syndrome are a reality when it comes to gender equality. Sometimes I have observed that these are not out of intent but rather ignorance. The challenge is that gender equality is seen as a nice to have than a human right. To drink fresh water, to breath in clean air, to go to school or to apply for a job without prejudice are all fundamental rights. I had an opportunity to talk more about this and suggest solutions as a guest writer for We Can Leadership Institute and in my blogs  below are the links.

http://www.we-can-leadershipinstitute.com/2014/10/

http://www.drtqo.com/Blog2.html 

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

Do not enrol for maths literacy at high school, do pure maths. I find a number of young girls interested in Science after matric only to find out that they enrolled for maths literacy while at high school. You do have great potential and can be what you aspire to be if you are willing to put the effort and ask for help when necessary it is possible. 

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”?

Africa is the land of opportunity and growing in STEM. The research integrity, research morality and ethics are observed and practiced. I am so happy of the Biodiversity act of 2004 and the type of informed consent allowed in South Africa as far as research is concerned, it shows that we are ready to protect what is ours while also being globally relevant.  Our challenge is that we implement at a slow pace as if change is evitable. We however still need more innovative ways that will close the gender gap in STEM. 

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

The vast knowledge that our traditional health practitioners have as far as our indigenous plants are concerned. It is remarkable and laudable. They might not know the scientific name/ English name of the herbs but when you speak in our vernacular with them you start to appreciate the wisdom that has been passed from generation to the next in our communities. 

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

By having a relationship with God, connected to myself, going to the gym and having a strong support structure. 

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

I do not have just one role model but a number of people that inspire me in different spheres. People who are committed to growth, progress, life-long students and pioneers of African literature.

The likes of my parents: Prof PLO Lumumba, Prof Kgethi Phakeng, Eckart Tolle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Chimmanda Adichie Ngozi, Prof Chinau Achebe etc. My family and extended family members have been very supportive in this journey, they have been my cheerleaders. 

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

Website: http://www.drtqo.com

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmYWY-F38Tg 

Twitter Handle: @olathozie

Tozama Qwebani-Ogunleye 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