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Meet three recipients of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Young Talents awards

Mwende Mbilo, an honarary of The L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Young Talents Sub-Saharan Africa Awards. Photo: Mwende Mbilo

The L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Young Talents Sub-Saharan Africa Awards shines a spotlight on African women scientists working to resolve problems in their countries. Meet 3 of the 30 women who were honoured at the 2023 ceremony in Botswana.

Clemence Manyukwe, bird story agency

At primary school, Nthabeleng Hlapisi was curious about unexplained mysteries, including black holes, shaped by unseen forces in the universe. The promising young scientist from Lesotho credits that curiosity for the later developments that landed her one of Africa's top science awards.

Hlapisi was among the 30 winners of the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Young Talents Sub-Saharan Africa Awards at a ceremony held in Botswana early in November.

She also made history as the first national of Lesotho to win the annual award, which is now in its 14th year.

According to a L’Oréal-UNESCO statement, the awards enable its laureates to benefit from financial support to help them conduct their research projects with grants of €10,000 for each of the 25 PhD candidates and €15,000 for each of the five post-doctoral researchers who were honoured.

Hlapisi - a fourth-year PhD student pursuing Medicinal Chemistry at South Africa's University of KwaZulu-Natal - was recognised for her research, which is aimed at delivering effective, less invasive cancer treatment solutions.

“My research is based on using two modalities. That is, the Photo Thermal and the Photo Dynamic therapy where these two methods are non-invasive methods that are used to treat cancer. Photo Dynamic therapy is a modality that you use a dye, and in the presence of oxygen, this dye will produce toxic oxygen. In the presence of oxygen and light, this dye will produce toxic oxygen and kill cancer cells," Hlapisi said.

“In Photo Thermal therapy, we use nanoparticles. All these methods are very non-invasive and they are also very specific. By this, I mean that they only kill the cancer cells and not the normal cells. This can be very helpful because the already existing methods to kill cancer are very invasive in that they also kill normal cells hence in chemotherapy people lose their hair and in surgery people lose parts of the body,” she explained.

Hlapisi’s insatiable curiosity and hunger to solve mysteries saw her reading physics and chemistry books when she was just 12 years old. Her first research project - on the Bermuda Triangle - while in primary school was a turning point, she said.

“I was very fascinated by what this Bermuda Triangle was and I read every physics book to understand why this ship disappeared. That is one of the turning points of how I loved science - because I wanted to read more. I wanted to know why the ship disappeared. What is the physics behind it? The force of gravity and all of that. By reading about the Bermuda Triangle, it made me know what the forces are, Newton's First Law and also I got to learn about other discoveries," she said.

Her fascination with science deepened in high school when a friend's mother succumbed to HIV and she felt it was possible for her to work to find a cure. She was the president of her science club in high school from Grades 9-12.

Hlapisi said the biggest hurdle she faced was a lack of finances as she came from a low-income family and lost her father at a very young age, which made life very difficult.

“Being the first from Lesotho to win the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award has come with a huge responsibility to ensure that I am not the last recipient,” Hlapisi added.

This has seen her join many women in science societies to mentor others.

“Being the first means I have to carry other people through because I believe in an idiom in the African language that says it takes a village and also that when you educate a woman you educate the whole community. When you educate a man, you just educate the man. Being the first person means I have to bring other people along for them to also win this award," Hlapisi said.

Another recipient of the award is Namibia's Maria Nelago Kanyama. Kanyama grew up in a village that was plagued by water shortages, which fuelled her determination to solve water-related issues in communities like her own.

Today, Kanyama is pursuing a PhD in Computer Science, specialising in Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST).

Kanyama is harnessing machine learning to bring water solutions to communities like Oshaakondwa village in Namibia's Oshikoto region where she grew up.

The objective of her research is to create a system capable of identifying anomalies such as leakages, meter malfunctions, instances of water theft and tampering within water utilities. She said the initiative is especially crucial considering the projected water stress in Sub-Saharan Africa due to the effects of climate change.

In Namibia, the detection of these anomalies currently relies on human observation, but Kanyama’s focus is on developing innovative solutions that leverage disruptive technologies

Kanyama overcame personal loss and gender bias to find her way to the top of scientific endeavours in Africa.

“The loss of my mother during my final high school exams could have been a major setback, but her resilience and hard work instilled in me a drive to succeed. I was fortunate to secure a place in university along with a bursary, driven by my determination not to disappoint her legacy,” she said.

“Initially aspiring to become a pilot, I found my path leading to electronics engineering, landing me a job as an Air Traffic Electronic Engineer. This trajectory allowed me to merge my passion for aviation with Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), creating a unique and fulfilling blend of interest. However, the workplace presented challenges in the form of gender bias and discrimination. Being a female engineer in a male-dominated field, I encountered prejudices that questioned my capabilities and marginalised me, hindering my integration and confidence."

She said that throughout these struggles, maintaining focus on her science dream required intentional effort.

“I've learned that preserving one's dreams demands resilience and a constant reminder of the bigger picture. Keeping my purpose in sight, I strived to overcome hurdles, holding onto my aspirations despite adversities. It's essential not to let detractors dictate the trajectory of one's dreams," she said.

Kenyan, Mwende Mbilo was also honoured at the awards. Mbilo is pursuing a PhD degree in physics at the University of Nairobi and is working on lighting up more homes with solar energy. She credits her parents, who were science teachers at primary school level, for her passion for science. She is currently a visiting researcher at the Korea Research Institute in South Korea and is set to return to her university in early 2024.

“I am carrying out research on improving renewable energy in the field of organic solar cells. Organic solar cell light absorbers have the potential of harnessing more sunlight compared to the traditional inorganic solar cell light absorbers due to their higher bandgap," she said.

“One challenge that I have encountered during my career journey is a lack of funding support to advance my science career. Kenyan government invests less in research; therefore, it has been difficult to get financial support for my studies in Kenya. Luckily, my university lecturers and mentors were exposed to external funding opportunities that they would share and encourage me to apply. This way, I was able to get scholarships to pursue my science dream,” she shared.

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Ronnie Lanna
Ronnie Lanna
07. März

 I appreciate your unique perspective on this topic. Geometry Dash Lite

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