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Accidental scientist tackles food insecurity

To commemorate National Science Week and National Women's Month, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science is honouring its female scientists through a Wonder Women in Science campaign.

These women are passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are advancing science in their diverse fields. One of these "Wonder Women" is Mbali Gwacela from the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences. Gwacela accidentally ended up in the sciences, but says this field turned out to be bursting with possibilities.

"It is only when you understand the whys and hows of the world you live in, that you get to appreciate all that the earth has to offer," she says.

Gwacela started out in the social sciences studying geography, which is where some of her earliest memories of science coming to life begin. She recalls a few significant field trips with her class during undergraduate studies; two to the Drakensberg in the freezing cold, where every rock structure, soil type and stone in and outside of the riverbed was examined.

"Literally everything we learned in class was tried and tested in real life. We were having so much fun as we learned and made reference to Professor (Trevor) Hill and Professor (Heinz) Beckedahl's lectures," she says.

A second field trip to Mtunzini, KwaZulu-Natal north coast, which included everything from getting neck-deep in mud to "surfing" down sand dunes, involved learning about coastal swamps, waves and dunes.

"The field trips demanded a lot of work, yet they were extremely fun," says Gwacela.

Her academic career would lead her to explore food security during her post-graduate studies. Despite initially being fearful of science, Gwacela says that in the subject she discovered a field she called "mind-blowing" with limitless opportunities.

"I accidentally found myself in science, and when I realised where I was, it was too late to change," she says. "It was then that I realised I could have done science, if only I was more aware and open-minded to the subject in high school, especially mathematics."

Gwacela, who is part of the Black Women in Science non-profit organisation that mentors, guides and promotes science among disadvantaged black African women, encourages other young women to embrace mathematics and science instead of being intimidated by these subjects.

"These two subjects are inclusive of so many things in the world that we live in," she says. "If you are not doing well, then you have to do more research through the Internet and enquire - use what is available to simplify your understanding. I was scared of these subjects, and now I have found myself within it, loving it and regretful of the opportunities missed in my high school life."

Gwacela acknowledges the urgent need for attention to and investment in science education in South Africa, particularly for marginalised communities with little to no access to scientific resources to enhance understanding of scientific concepts, especially for children headed to university. She also highlights that even more support is needed for young girls wanting to enter the sciences.

She believes women bring their unique capacity for feeling and caring to the sciences, enabling them to tackle problems from different angles and adding gentler, inclusive aspects to the way science is approached and applied.

This role is not without its challenges, however. "Being a woman in my field is very challenging, and it forces me to be confident, resilient and to always have to justify or make known gender relations," she notes.

Female researchers in her field also face challenges of acceptance in the communities they work with, often finding greater traction when accompanied by a male colleague.

Being a scientist and a woman can also be mentally exhausting. "Always thinking in systems, and about how everything will affect others, can be extremely draining because I am always trying to find links, connections and possible outcomes or consequences in everything I do," she says.

Gwacela, who is cognisant of the need to be an example to young women in science, is undertaking PhD research on community food systems and their relation to and impact on household food security. She works closely with communities in Swayimane, Msinga, Mbumbulu, Nhlazuka and Tugela Ferry. She also hopes to work with the St Wendolins community, where she was born and raised.

"Each community has its distinct systems and means of production, purchasing and food consumption patterns," she explains. "Through this research, I hope to develop an electronic tool to aid households in making healthier food choices and increase culinary skills specifically related to the food system and environment around them."

Gwacela hopes the hallmarks of her career will be the passion she has for people, and for the communities with whom she has worked since she entered this field. She also hopes her research will have a positive impact on people's lives, even if it is simply to broaden their thinking.

Her achievements have been many, but among the most important for her was having her late grandmother, Juliana Gwacela, attend two of her graduation ceremonies and hearing her ululating in the audience.

"She was my best cheerleader and supporter in all I did," says Gwacela.

Other notable accomplishments are achieving her master's degree, serving as a panellist for the Academy of Science of South Africa, and contributing to a Food Security and Policy Workshop for the SADC region.

Gwacela encourages other young female scientists to look for problems that only they understand, and to seize the opportunity to solve problems where the world has been waiting for solutions.

All of our Wonder Women in Science could easily be undercover superheroes, so here is some inside info on the kind of superhero we've found in Gwacela:

Q. What would your superpower be and why?A. The power to perfectly do 10 things all at once. I always have so much to do and so many places to be that it drives me crazy. Every day I bear the burden of not doing as much as I could have done. Having this superpower will help me sleep better at night.

Q. What song would be your theme song?A. Heaven in You by Hugh Masekela and J-something or World Wide Woman by Beyonce Knowles

Q. What would your superhero gadget be and why?A. A pocket device that makes me travel through matter at the speed of light.

Q. Who would be in your "all-star team" to take on the world?A. Dr Mjabu Ngidi; my sister, Nonjabulo; Dr Emmanuel Obaga; Simphiwe Mngomezulu-Dube; my mom, Thandiwe Gwacela; Nonjabulo Mzimela; Dali Shabane; Olisa Mqamkana; Ntandokazi Ninela "Ta"; Professor Steve Worth; and Dr Karen Caister

Q. Where would your secret lair/hideout be?A. A bedroom with pastel-coloured, feather linen and an incredibly soft bed that overlooks the seaside or a nature reserve.

Q. What is your kryptonite?A. A peanut butter and jam sandwich, dried fruits and especially mangoes!

For other inspirational Wonder Women in Science stories, visit: wwis.ukzn.ac.za.

Words: Christine Cu'enod