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#STEMStories: Zoleka, Offshore Benthic Ecologist, South Africa

Name: Zoleka Filander
Role/Occupation: Offshore Benthic Ecologist (Department of Environmental Affairs: Oceans and Coast) and PhD student (Nelson Mandela University: Zoology Department)
Country: South Africa

A mother, wife, marine scientist, science communicator, mentor, PhD student and public servant, Zoleka Filander is a woman who wears many hats. Filander works as an offshore benthic ecologist for the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and is a PhD student at the Zoology Department of the Nelson Mandela University. She juggles all her responsibilities with careful planning. Filander spends almost three months a year at sea. While at sea, she makes sure she works on communicating her science, by drafting popular articles and reports. When she returns home, she takes time off to spend quality time with her family and to work on her PhD thesis. Her work generally involves proposing, developing and implementing projects that feed into the sustainable management of South African marine resources.

Being a small town girl from the rural landlocked, Kokstad in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Filander landed in her profession by pure chance as she was unaware of a career in marine biology. She completed her undergraduate degree and subsequent honours degree in Marine Biology at the Walter Sisulu University. She then completed her MSc in Marine Biology at the University of Cape Town. This was followed by her appointment as by the offshore scientist for the Department of Environmental Affairs. As one of the few females in this emerging field, she describes her experience as “extremely challenging but equally rewarding.”

One of the most rewarding parts of her job, “is capturing the beauty of the ocean sea floor and sharing these discoveries with not just [her] family, but with the public at large.” However, she cannot disregard some of discrimination she has had to endure thus far from both her male and female counterparts. She has learnt to deal with this by filtering it out and just working to the best of her abilities “without losing sight of who [she is] and what [she represents] in the space.” Her advice to young girls aspiring to a STEM career is to “not allow ANYBODY to put you in a box, you know your capabilities and limits. Never forget to thrive to be the best you can be, and recognize that it is the best without conforming to anybody else’s standards.” Filander believes that this is the best time to have a STEM career in Africa, as “there are several initiatives that have recognized this [emergence of STEM fields in Africa and its associated lack of infrastructure] and the importance of addressing these knowledge gaps by ensuring international and regional collaborations, capacity development, and mentorship.” She identifies South Africa has having “a unique geographic position where the country’s biology, and climate are influenced by three oceans… [making it] one of the best ‘natural labs’ to assist with better understanding some of the current global challenges/pressures.”

Dive further into the interview below and be inspired by our very own South African Indiana Jones and proud Geeky Girl, Zoleka Filander.

1. Describe what your work entails.
My work entails proposing, developing and implementing projects that feed into the sustainable management of our national marine resources. The first thing to say is that there isn’t really a typical day in the life of Zoleka. One big reason for that is, as a marine biologist I spend a lot of my time doing research at sea. Each year I spend approximately three months of my time on-board a research ship exploring South Africa’s uncharted offshore habitats. Here, I am usually in charge of all the science, which means working long shifts; and being on standby for the other hours of the day, to oversee the operations and deployment of a range of offshore sampling. It’s not all Indiana Jones stuff however, other aspects of my work involves analysing the Iziko Museum’s historic collection (one of South Africa’s gold mines when it comes to understating biodiversity patterns).

When I am not at sea or in the museum, my work involves an extensive amount of planning which ranges from, administration, procurement, supervising, and networking with colleagues in various sectors. In order to develop national projects its critical to have an understanding of not only the ecosystems and services the various environments provide, but also the different sector- specific benefits and management tools. Apart from the planning required, I also spend some of my time analysing the diverse datasets I have developed within the various projects and interpret these in light of large and small scale scientific questions. This involves being up-to-date with the different technologies and developing efficient ways to apply these technologies. Communicating these scientific findings is also on top of my priority list, so I usually also attend national and international meetings, conferences, workshops and publish in scientific journals and in popular newsletters. I also really enjoy the outreach and science communication component of my work, this is where I get a chance to give back to the public, particularly rural communities.

2. Describe your STEM journey.
Funny enough, I ended up in the career by pure chance, it wasn’t something I was aware of as a person who comes from a rural, landlocked town in Kwa-Zulu Natal called Kokstad. I was however always interested in science, and originally aspired to be a medical doctor, but things did not go as I planned. Looking back and how far I have come, I truly believe it was for the best. Upon completing my undergraduate degree I pursued an Honours degree in Marine Biology. This is when I fell in love with the dynamics of the ocean space. After completing my Honours degree, I packed my bag and took a bus to Cape Town, with nothing but hope and a dream to complete a Masters degree- which I did! Soon after, I got appointed by the department, as their offshore scientist. Being one of the few black females in this emerging field, it has been extremely challenging but equally rewarding.

3. What excites you about your job? What motivates you to get out of bed every morning?
The rewarding part of my job, is capturing the beauty of the ocean sea floor and sharing these discoveries with not just my family, but with the public at large. Apart from the excitement that comes with discovering and documenting the remarkable offshore ecosystems, recognizing the importance of occupying such a white, particularly male, dominated space also inspires me to get going- especially when younger black scientist contact me and send me messages of gratitude.

4. How would you describe your experience as a woman in the STEM space?
Being based in a country (like South Africa) which has such a rich history, there is still a lot that needs to be invested towards the transformation of certain fields such as science. I cannot shy away from some of the discrimination, undermining and associated struggles I have had to endure- not just from male counterparts but from females within the field as well. Nonetheless, I have learnt to filter these out and just work to my best of abilities without losing sight of who I am and what I represent in the space.

5. What advice would you give to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field?
Do not allow ANYBODY to put you in a box, you know your capabilities and limits. Never forget to thrive to be the best you can be, and recognize that it is the best without conforming to anybody else’s standards.

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”?
Most certainly!!! Although most fields of science are still emerging in Africa due to the lack of infrastructure in the past, there are several initiatives that have recognized this and the importance of addressing these knowledge gaps by ensuring international and regional collaborations, capacity development, and mentorship. This is the best time to be tacking up a career in science, more so when you consider the multiple environmental and socio-economic challenges being faced world-wide!

Bringing it closer to home, South Africa has a unique geographic position where the country’s biology, and climate are influenced by three oceans. This on its own makes the country one of the best “natural labs” to assist with better understanding some of the current global challenges/pressures.

7. Have there been any milestone moments or eureka moments in your career?
In the last five years, there are three that stick out. The first being obtaining my commercial class four divers license a year after learning how to swim. The second has to be successfully leading a three year national project, and lastly currently being in a position of having a direct line with the world experts in my field.

8. How do you maintain a work-life balance?
I always say it’s more of a juggle than a balance because you physical and mentally can’t be in different places at once. As a mother, wife, marine scientist, science communicator, mentor, PhD student and public servant; I have learnt to put in place small actions/behaviours in place, which ensure I for fill all my roles. For example, when I come back from a 30 day cruise, I take time off from work to spend quality time with my family and catch up on the PhD. And when I am at sea, I make sure I communicate my science, draft popular articles and reports. So all in all, I am learning everyday how to be good at juggling the many different hats that I wear.

9. Who is your role model? Who inspires you?
There is no single person who embodies all the characteristics I want in a role model, so I draw different values from different people. So to name a few (in no particular order), Mrs Busiswa Momoti (my grandmother) , Dr Nokuzola Filander (my late mother), Dr Stephen Cairns (my PhD co-supervisor), Dr Kerry Sink (my PhD co-supervisor), Dr Amanda Lombard (my PhD supervisor), Dr Lara Atkinson (my colleague), Dr Diva Amon (a deep-sea scientist I have never met in person but follow on social media), Mr Mthuthuzeli Gulekana (my Science Manager and mentor with the Department of Environmental Affairs), Prof Charles Griffiths (my MSc supervisor), Dr Sandra Brooke (international mentor), Dr Cheryl Morrison (international mentor), Ms Robyn Payne (my friend), and Mr Mfundo Lombi (colleague and friend).

10. Where can more information or insight into your work be found? 
Unfortunately, there is no single platform you can visit to get more information on my work. I am in the process of creating a website, but till then, visit the below links:

Department of Environmental Affairs website: https://www.environment.gov.za/dearesearchteamreturnfromdeepseaexpedition

Department of Environmental Affairs social media pages: 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Department-of-Environmental-Affairs-155772237844448/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/environmentza

Zoleka Filander on research gate
https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Zoleka_Filander

Zoleka Filander on social media 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/zolekalulu.filander
Twitter: https://twitter.com/coral_carer

Zoleka Filander 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

Social media: coral_carer (twitter handle); Coral Carer (Facebook)