In the tenth interview of our #WomenofUP series this August we speak to Dr Nthabiseng Taole, Director of Research and Innovation (DRI).
Tell us about your background and educational qualifications.
I have worked in the national system of innovation for more than 20 years. This includes universities and research councils. My professional journey has also exposed me to non-governmental organisations and the private sector where I got to appreciate the application of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in development. I hold a Bachelor of Science (Mathematics and Statistics) from the National University of Lesotho and a PhD in Information Science from the University of Pretoria.
What do you do at UP?
As the Director of the Department of Research and Innovation, I provide strategic coordination and operational management, with particular reference to research capacity development, postgraduate and postdoctoral services, academic contracting, including intellectual property management and commercialisation, international research collaborations and partnerships, as well as research management systems and operations.
How do you make a difference in the lives of staff and students?
Our core business as a department is to provide excellent research and innovation services and programmes to UP researchers and postgraduate students. We do this by strengthening research, innovation and internationalisation support for researchers, postgraduate students and fellows; increasing research visibility, impact and commercial opportunities; and growing UP’s share of external research and innovation funding. We are in the process of establishing a Postgraduate Centre where the thrust will be the university’s academic project, and supporting postgraduate students in the various stages of the postgraduate life cycle.
Describe a typical work day.
I serve on a number of management committees of the University and this entails many meetings which take up most of my day. The rest of the time is spent on specific tasks related to my portfolio, including meeting international visitors, the UP community and DRI staff. I also have to create time to consolidate and work on the many leadership tasks that are part of my job.
Dr Nthabiseng Taole's first degree was in mathematics.
What do you love about your job?
It is always fulfilling to see DRI’s contribution to the lives of postgraduate students and researchers. This could range from a successful research grant application, a research collaboration which opens doors for more partnerships, or technology that has been successfully commercialised. Equally pleasing are the messages received from postgraduate students who went through some of our graduate support programmes and managed to complete their studies on time.
How do you manage the challenges of heading a research and innovation division, particularly as this seems to be a male-dominated profession?
My first degree was in mathematics, which was and is still considered a male-dominated discipline. Indeed, there were very few women in those lecture rooms, but I never had difficulties navigating that space. My exposure to the social sciences at a later stage prepared me for my current profession as I have to work with researchers and postgraduate students from across different disciplines.
Also worth emphasising is the presence of the many women who are doing a brilliant job in the research and innovation management space here in South Africa and globally. I continue to learn a lot from them.
Why is research and innovation so important?
Research and development (R&D) is a major contributor to the innovation process. It makes possible pathways of dealing with contemporary challenges, while innovation can and does result in commercial and social applications for wider societal benefit. A combination of research, development and innovation is needed to maintain local institutional, as well as national and regional competitiveness.
What are your views on the paucity of women pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and generally not proceeding beyond a master's degree? What are the implications of this?
There are many drivers to this current reality. The barriers range from entrenched societal beliefs that STEM is challenging and thus not an arena for women. Indeed, women do play critical roles at work and in family life but so do men. Therefore, there are no real reasons for women not to enter and play critical roles in this space. This barrier is also partly related to psychological and cultural barriers which perpetuate the belief that STEM is a playground for men with only a few women ‘privileged’ to enter on merit or by special arrangement. This is a myth.
The implications are that young women lack role models in this domain, leading to the disparities in gender balance in the field.
What career advice can you give to young women who might be thinking of following careers in innovation and research?
A career in research and innovation management is very fulfilling. One gets to serve a broad range of professionals and to contribute towards many interesting projects. The impact of this profession is really mind-blowing; from facilitating a bursary that helps a first-generation graduate break the cycle of poverty in her family, to negotiating a big research grant that allows a team of researchers from a number of countries to work together; the opportunities in this space are limitless!
What inspires you?
I strongly believe that I am the change agent for the difference that I want to see. My love for knowledge and education drives me to seek opportunities where I can contribute in that space. For example, some of my professional women friends and I formed an NPC (non-profit company) called Esther-Naledzi where we contribute money every month and fund a few needy university students. We also do gap funding for those who manage to get NSFAS bursaries. We have just graduated our very first recipient in 2018. This is one of the most fulfilling contributions and we are looking for more partners so that this initiative can have a wider and deeper impact.
Look out for more profiles of amazing #WomenofUP and read about those we have already featured as we celebrate Women's Month: