2016 WISA winners – pride of South African science
Innovative use of information and communication technology (ICT) to accurately predict drought-stricken environments proved a winning formula for a young Free State researcher who walked away with top honours at the annual Women in Science Awards (WISA) of the Department of Science and Technology (DST).
Dr Muthoni Masinde, who obtained her PhD from the University of Cape Town in 2012, currently works as a senior lecturer and Head of ICT at the Central University of Technology in the Free State.
For her PhD, Dr Masinde developed a novel tool that accurately predicts droughts. The tool taps into African indigenous knowledge of natural disasters and augments it with ICT such as artificial intelligence, wireless sensor networks and mobile phones. This contribution was recognised by the International Telecommunications Union and emerged in the top five in the Union's Green ICT Application Challenge.
Dr Masinde's contribution to drought forecasting solutions for the Free State was recently featured on the BBC World Service, and led to the establishment of a unit at the Central University of Technology where she teaches, for research on informatics for drought in Africa.
With research and teaching experience spanning 16 years, Dr Masinde was named the winner in the category of Distinguished Young Women Researchers: Research and Innovation, earning R75 000 for advancing science and building knowledge.
Passionate about using science for the community, Prof. Vhonani Netshandama is this year's winner in the Distinguished Women Researchers in the Humanities and Social Sciences Category. She also received R75 000 for using science to empower others.
Prof. Netshandama was the initial facilitator of the establishment of Mukondeni Filter Factory, a water filter factory. This was a spin-off collaborative project of the University of Virginia, UniVen and Mukondeni Pottery near Elim in Limpopo, where the Mukondeni potters were trained to make ceramic water filters.
Recently, she completed a community-based design study to assess the acceptability of a nipple shield for the administration of medication to infants. While it may take a few more years to get the product to market, the strength of Prof. Netshandama's contribution is her insistence on taking time to engage care-givers and mothers in rural areas to give input into the design of the nipple shield.
Emerging young scientist, Caroline Pule, walked away with a R60 000 Tata Scholarship for her research into TB, focusing on understanding the physiology of drug-resistant and tolerant TB strainsand how these bacteria modulate the host response in the context of the macrophage infection model. Ms Pule won a DST doctoral fellowship in 2014.
Delivering the keynote address, former Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka congratulated the 'exceptional' South Africans, particularly those making a social impact in the empowerment of women, saying the South African Women in Science Awards created a platform for mentorship which was desperately needed in South Africa.
"I addition to this, mentorship should create an opportunity for sponsorship so that when we mentor, we mentor someone with the intention to sponsor them so that we shatter the glass ceiling, because perpetual mentoring can be frustrating. There has to be a trajectory that mentoring leads us to," said Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka.
She said the women who were being honored had chosen to be part of a dynamic and exciting field of science and technology.
Talking about access to the broadband in society, Dr Mlambo-Ngquka called for the expansion of technology to rural and poor communities.
She urged scientists to collaborate with local and international partners to use science to end poverty, hunger, improve health, education, ensure gender equality, water, sanitation, energy, economic growth, and protect peace, among others, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.
"I congratulate you and salute you for the wonderful things you are doing for the country."
Opening the Awards ceremony, the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, said the awards were not only a special event, but allowed young women to dream of a life in science, as far too many girls were led to assume that their dreams were irrelevant.
The theme for this year is "Women empowerment and its link to sustainable development".
"The Women in Science Awards is always a special event. It is a celebration of the achievements of women in science and a reminder that we will not realise the full scientific potential of our country until all our young scientists are able to enjoy access to the best facilities and education," said the Minister.
Congratulating the winners and the runners up, Minister Pandor said South African women had achieved a level of gender equality that had only been accomplished in other countries after many decades of democracy.
Yet, she said, the evidence of continuing gender inequality in some of our key institutions of governance clearly indicated that a great deal more had to be done in South Africa to ensure that women feel practically safe and respected as equal citizens of our country.
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