Science thrills the lady

IT'S NO secret that women, especially black women, were excluded from the "white men's club" of science. In recent years, though, they have become essential to the scientific community.

For Kgaogelo Amanda Maswanganye uncovering the unexpected is a routine procedure. Anticipating what surprises await her, is one of the most rewarding aspects of her research.

Recently the 34-year-old from Giyani in Limpopo was one of five women awarded the inaugural L'Oreal and Unesco Regional Fellowship for Women in Science in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Maswanganye, who is at present doing her PhD was among five African women - the only South African - chosen by six distinguished professors from sub-Saharan Africa.


Her love for science started at a very young age. Now based in Pretoria, Maswanganye grew up in various parts of Limpopo with her grandparents, who encouraged her to love all things natural, including wildlife, by helping her experience it first-hand.

"My grandparents were fond of nature," Maswanganye recalls. "They used to take me for walks to show me nature. These surroundings and the influence of good teachers at high school made me interested in science."

Has being a woman made it difficult to advance in her career?

Maswanganye says the sciences are an extremely competitive field and being a scientist is difficult.

"And being a mother at the same time you also want to be at home. It's not a career in which you leave your office at 4.30pm and go home.

"If you want to be in the profession you have to decide which is more important and when you have to dedicate more time to your family," says the married mother of one, who also tutors at the University of Pretoria.

She says learning how to divide her time between work and her personal life was definitely a challenge, but it also taught her many valuable lessons.

"Time management, organisational skills, responsibility, teamwork and leadership are all characteristics that I'm always eager to share with students," she says.

"Travel has also played a large role in shaping my view of others and of cultural differences. I see all these as an excellent opportunity to enrich my education as well as my personal growth. Behind my achievements is a strong desire to learn."

Her achievements started at an early age. In 1989 she was awarded a joint Northern Province-German Science Foundation Achievement award for promising pupils at Giyani High School in Giyani.

She did a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Venda with a Northern Province Government Science Award sponsorship in 1996.

In 1997 she did an honours degree in zoology at the University of Pretoria and later completed her master's in the discipline, speciali sing in reproductive physiology in mole-rats, at the same university in 2005.

She then took a break from studying because she wanted to experience different cultures and environments.

Maswanganye has published two articles and has presented her work at several national and international conferences.

She was awarded a scholarship to study French at Alliance Française and moved to France to be an English-language assistant from 2005 until late 2007.

Maswanganye returned to the University of Pretoria in 2008 to teach molecular biology.

Her research interests are in phylogeography and molecular systems. She is at present working on her thesis onSpeciation and landscape genetics of three rock dwelling small mammals withemphasis on the grassland biome of southern Africa, using molecular techniques.


Her main interest is to understand landscape characteristics, which will help elucidate the patterns and processes of gene flow and local diversity found within-between populations.

Also how using different molecular approaches with innovative laboratory and field methods can unravel the mechanisms by which evolution can shape the distribution of small mammals.

And how the ever-changing climatic and environmental factors have driven these processes. How we can use what we know today to extrapolate future impacts of our human footprint and minimise its effect.

She says the study contributes to small mammal biodiversity research in southern Africa.

"The study will also contribute to understanding biodiversity at an eco-system level by focusing on the grassland biome which is in critical need of conservation interventions," she says.

"By studying co-distributed species with different life-history traits we have a unique opportunity to disentangle the influences of extrinsic and intrinsic factors on structuring genetic diversity."

She says she wants to make a contribution to conserve biodiversity for future generations and to safeguarding this treasured possession.

Maswanganye decries the lack of interest in the sciences among black students.

"Many black students are scared of the sciences, but once they get into it they love it. Another thing that scares many away is that it does not pay very well," she says.

For people who want to be scientists, Maswanganye says: "Be very serious about maths, physical science and biology. High school knowledge comes in handy at university. We need black scientists especially women. This field has a lot of opportunities."