Senamile Masango: The queen of science

Senamile Masango graduated with a Master's in nuclear physics this week.
Senamile Masango graduated with a Master's in nuclear physics this week.

Senamile Masango may be the daughter of a princess - but she's the queen of science. Having graduated with a Master's degree in nuclear physics cum laude this week, the nuclear physicist hopes to one day take over the reins at the problematic Eskom.

Now studying towards her PhD, she explains what is it that she does exactly: "We smash particles in order to unlock the mystery of the universe and we also want to understand the interaction that happens between neutrons and protons."

She made history as one of a few black female scientists to experiment at one of the world's largest centres for scientific research, CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland two years ago. These are dreams she didn't think she would fulfill as she fell pregnant at the age of 20 and lost that same child in a car accident three years ago.

But she explains that she hails from strong roots.

Born in the rural village of Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal, in May 1987, she says her mother is a princess from the Zulu royal family while her father was a chief inspector and leader.

"He raised us very well and he is the one who planted the seed of education [in us]. I can write a whole book about his teachings. My father had three wives, my mother was the youngest.

"Growing up in a polygamous family was a challenging set-up, especially for us kids. At least the parents knew what they put themselves into. I learned at an early age how to defend myself and also not to cross other people's boundaries. You must mind your own business all the times."

Her interest in science was planted at Mlokothwa High School when she was merely 11 years old. "Our geography teacher, Mr Ziqubu, introduced us to astronauts. I was fascinated to learn there are people who can leave this dimension and go to the moon. I also learnt that no one in Africa had ever travelled into space ... I fell in love with science. I wanted to be the first African to travel to space but Mark Shuttleworth beat me to it," she says.

Having started school at the age of four, she was able to enrol at the University of Zululand at the age of 16. The 31-year-old relates that she failed a few modules and also fell pregnant.

But this week she came out tops, graduating at the University of the Western Cape.

"I had support from my family and I knew it was not the end of the world. I had to pick myself up, accept failure and learn from it. I was left with one module [advanced calculus, when she fell pregnant], so there was no turning back.

"A few years later my daughter died ... it was her first day at a new school and she never came back after being struck by a car. This was the most painful thing I'd been through, I won't even wish it upon my enemies. What kept me going is my relationship with God, I know He won't give me what I can't handle, He has greater plans for my life. I am stubborn by nature and have a never-die spirit."

She also faces daily struggles in her chosen field. "Because of the colour of my skin, regardless of 20-plus years of freedom, you have to prove yourself first - that you can do it [the job] and you belong here. It's worse when you are a black woman. What works for me is my ambitious nature, I want to break barriers, I am not limited."

Masango also launched the SA Women in Science and Engineering organisation in December 2014. "It provides leadership and role models for young people wishing to enter the fields of science and technology. I want to open my own consulting company focusing on engineering, climate and energy. I also want to serve on the Eskom board or be their CEO."

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