Archaeologist and University of Pretoria (UP) alumna Dr Keneiloe Molopyane has been selected as one of the 15 Emerging Explorers for 2021 by the National Geographic Society.
“Being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer is an incredible honour,” she says. “[The Emerging Explorer cohort] comprises individuals who are making breakthroughs in their respective fields, and are new members of the global National Geographic Explorer community of change-makers. The award provides us with the necessary support and platform to take our research to a global audience.”
Dr Molopyane (34), who hails from Benoni in Johannesburg’s East Rand, graduated from UP with a BHCS in Heritage and Cultural Tourism (2009) and a BHCS (Hons) in Archaeology (2010).
She is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for the Exploration of the Deep Human Journey at the University of the Witwatersrand, and aims to make use of her selection to develop integral skills and networks that will further shape her career. She notes that her research and its application is still in the planning phase, but that it involves the re-exploration of a fossil-bearing cave site in the Cradle of Humankind. “One of the principle things I do as an archaeologist is uncover and tell the story of our human journey,” she explains. “Whether it is modern humans or our ancient relatives, there is an untold chapter to the story to be shared with both South Africans and the global audience.”
Becoming an archaeologist had long been on the cards for Dr Molopyane. In fact, her university search was primarily guided by “which universities offered archaeology as a subject”. At the time she came across three that fit this criterion. “I also wanted to live on campus, but still be close to home so I could spend time with my family. Pretoria seemed like a good choice considering that it was close to home, and I was already somewhat familiar with Pretoria, so I chose UP.”
Dr Molopyane notes that there are not many women in science, and that this needs to change. She says that as a discipline, the palaeosciences have historically been dominated by white men. “There is an impression that there aren’t enough women in this field of study because we do not see or hear women in the palaeosciences being celebrated for new discoveries in the field,” she says. “There are women in the field – we just need the support required to succeed, and when we do, we deserve to be celebrated.”
Despite her successes, like many academics, Dr Molopyane says she sometimes experiences imposter syndrome: “The feeling of not being good enough or knowing what I am doing at any given time. The fact that not many women of colour are in these spaces can make one feel isolated. However, with the supportive networks and environment at the Centre for the Exploration of the Deep Human Journey, I am training my mind to treat imposter syndrome not as a shortcoming but rather as part of the discovery process. You cannot know it all.”
On this she has a word of advice for budding researchers: to surround themselves with good people. “There are constant challenges that will push you to your limits, and having that support network by your side will go a long way.”