Six rising female scientists from SA set for Germany

Published Mar 12, 2018


Two years ago, Edith Phalane, 27, packed her small bag and went to Potchestroom where she wanted to do her Master's degree at the University of North West.

It was just a leap of faith that Phalane took. In a strange province and strange town, she did not even know where she was going to sleep. She did not know where she would get money to register nor how she would fund her studies.

She had lost her mother to cervical cancer when she was 18 and about to begin her first year (at university), and she did not know her father.

Her uncle, who had been assisting the family, had lost his job and their grandmother had left her domestic worker job and survived on a pension grant.

However, Phalane was determined when she left Tzaneen, Limpopo, that she would do whatever it took to get her Master's and the heavens smiled on her that day.

Not only did she bump into a former student from Limpopo who offered her accommodation, she also applied for bursary at the university that day and got it, although it did not cover the entire costs of her studies.

Today Phalane, who is studying towards her PhD in physiology, is one of the six young female South African scientists who were nominated by the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf) to attend the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting later this year in Lindau, Germany.

The meeting will take place from June 24 to 29 and 43 Nobel Laureates were expected to attend.

Phalane, Dr Eileen Thomas from Stellenbosch University; Zimkhita Soji from University of Fort Hare; Blessing Ahiante from North-West University, Dr Bianca Verlinden of the University of Pretoria and Shireen Mentor from University of the Western Cape are part of 600 young scientists who were selected from 84 countries to participate in the meeting, which is dedicated to physiology and medicine.

Phalane’s area of speciality is HIV, anti-retroviral therapy, cardiovascular, metabolic and renal diseases; Thomas focuses on psychiatry; Soji’s focus is meat science; Ahiante’s speciality is hypertension, obesity and cardiovascular diseases and Verlinden’s focus is on creating malaria medicine that lasts while Mentor prefers to tackle blood-brain barrier, electrophysiology and cellular morphology.

Assaf is the official partner of the Lindau Foundation and annually nominates young scientists to attend the meetings with funding from the Department of Science and Technology .

The meetings are designed as a forum for exchange, networking and inspiration.

The scientists need to be outstanding graduates and post-doctoral students under 35 years and conducting research in physiology and medicine.

Those selected may expect a six-day programme with numerous lectures and panel discussions. While there, they will present their own research work at one of the master classes or at the poster session as a special opportunity.

Countess Bettina Bernadotte, the president of the council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, said it was “particularly gratifying” that 50% of the young scientists were women.

“I find it remarkable that we will bring together more than 80 nations to Lindau and in so doing, will not only be able to enjoy an intensive exchange between generations, but also one that crosses national boundaries,” she said.

Bernadotte’s words were echoed by Assaf executive officer, Professor Roseanne Diab, who said they were committed to promoting women in science activities and highlighting the importance of applying a gender lens in activities that it undertook.

“The Lindau Nobel Laureate programme presents a unique opportunity for young women to meet and interact with Nobel Laureates.”

Phalane said her journey to the top was not easy.

Thanks to NSFAS, she did her undergraduate and Honours degrees at the University of Limpopo. For her Master's, she got a bursary from the National Research Foundation (NRF). However, she had to de-register after two years owing to the challenges she encountered along the way.

“As I was working with human beings, I could not get the ethical clearance the progress was slow.”

Phalane then heard that there was a woman who had completed her Master's within a year at the University of North West. She applied, but the NRF was not willing to pay for the same course again - yet she went to the university anyway. While there, Phalane befriended Ahiante and the two became more like sisters. So close were they that Ahiante used some of her bursary funds to pay for Phalane's studies.

When Ahiante’s funds ran out, a nervous Phalane, who did not want to drop out, approached the university’s rector, Professor Fika Janse van Rensburg who helped settle her outstanding fees, which enabled her to graduate and then set her sights on PhD.

For Phalane, being chosen was a humbling experience considering that she had to compete with students from top universities including Oxford and Harvard. “Even now, I feel like someone will wake me up and say I’m dreaming," she said.

All Phalane wants to do on completing her studies is focus on helping rural communities modify their lifestyles to reduce incidents of cardiovascular diseases.

Ahiante shares her passion. The 32-year-old woman, who comes from Nigeria and has been in South Africa for five years, said she would like to use her knowledge to dispel myths surrounding cardiovascular diseases. 

“There are so many articles that state that black people are at the risk of getting cardiovascular diseases. It has also been said that it’s due to genetics. I want to prove that it's not genetics, but that these diseases are linked to poverty, stress and environmental factors and that people need education,” she said.


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