Mbambisa shatters a science myth
IT HAS been consistently said that men are better than women in maths and science. But women such as Gcineka Mbambisa are slowly changing this mindset
Many people have been brought up to believe that the male mind is rational, logical and analytical, while limiting the female mind to caring and emotion.
This perception has ruffled the feathers of feminists.
But women such as Gcineka Mbambisa are slowly changing this mindset.
Mbambisa, who hails from Mthatha, Eastern Cape, was recently awarded the 2012 L'Oréal Unesco For Women in Science Fellowship.
She is among 10 women scientists from across Sub-Saharan Africa who were awarded fellowships for their work in science - chosen from about 207 applicants.
The awards are open to all women scientists up to age 40, working towards a PhD in the fields of science.
The scientific research areas covered by this year's fellows include computer science, microbiology, environmental science, pharmaceutical microbiology, environmental health, dermatology, genetics, biomedical technology and molecular biology.
The 26-year-old Mbambisa is without doubt a very worthy recipient of the award.
She was raised as one of seven children by her housewife mother and father, who took early retirement when she was completing her Grade 5.
Mbambisa faced a string of challenges, including losing her mother in her first year of high school, developing a skin disorder in Grade 11 that caused her untold emotional stress and losing a brother that same year.
"After matriculating, I was faced with a tough decision. I wanted to pursue my tertiary studies, but I was worried about the financial burden this would place on my family of eight, who was already supported only by my father's income.
"Tertiary education seemed like a mirage, a situation that was made more daunting by the fact that I had no access to information on financial assistance," she says.
"My initial hesitation in applying for tertiary education dissolved when I realised that failure, like success, saps energy and passion. It is the individual mental culture that makes the difference and problems thrive and multiply when they are treated as prohibitive obstacles.
"In the course of searching for a way out, I received a government loan and this saw me through my undergraduate studies at Rhodes University from 2003 to 2005," Mbambisa says.
During this time her father pdied. His death put a stop to the meagre stipend from home and she had to stop studying.
"I managed to complete my Honours and Master's in Science later, eventually pursuing my PhD in Chemistry at the University of the Western Cape.
"Learning and research came with a strong sense of fulfilment and pursuing my PhD seemed to make little sense to anyone but myself in the face of such financial constraints. But I believed in the idea, even when the reality was a financial nightmare," Mbambisa says.
Her PhD research focuses on the production and characterisation of composite polymeric materials and nano-alloys in terms of their application in the construction of hybrid solar cells (photovoltaic devices). Mbambisa explains the scientific jargon.
"My research is informed by the current global energy crisis.
Existing energy supplies, which are mainly derived from non-renewable fuels, are not able to satisfy demand and as such, more renewable forms of energy are being explored. In Africa, the main focus is on solar energy and investigating ways to cut the costs of solar energy supply.
"One way of reducing these costs is using cheaper materials, hence my research exploring the use of organic compounds as photovoltaic materials (photovoltaic power generation employs solar panels).
"Against this backdrop, the overall goal of my research is to develop highly efficient materials at a very low cost, in an effort to make solar energy accessible to communities across Africa," she says.
Among other things, Mbambisa who was awarded R160,000 towards her PhD research, hopes that winning the fellowship will provide her a platform to share her testimony with women, who in the face of similar adversities, might otherwise never follow their dreams.
"This award is inspirational not only for me, but for young people who want to pursue science. I am very happy to be an example of what perseverance, passion and hard work can do," she says.