Force of nature: UP physics professor on building scientific capacity among women

Posted on August 16, 2020

“There is a trend that assumes physics is not for timid people, and that women are generally not able to do physics due to other commitments like family and raising children,” says Professor Mmantsae Moche Diale, an Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Pretoria (UP) who has gone a long way to bucking that trend.

A holder of the South African Research Chairs Initiative Chair in Clean and Green Energy, she has a PhD in Physics from UP and has been paying her achievements forward by building scientific capacity among students since 2005. She has also done her bit for women.

“I launched an organisation called Women in Physics in South Africa in 2005,” Prof Diale says. “This was a call from the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics to increase the number of women in physics worldwide.”

The unassuming academic comes from humble beginnings. Her father was a photographer and her mother, a seamstress. They worked hard and encouraged her to excel in education. But her career path was peppered with obstacles, the worst of which was an apartheid system “that was built to keep me at a lower level”, she says.

“The then Department of Science and Technology tasked the South African Institute of Physics to address the under-representation of women in physics in the country,” says Prof Diale. She led the project in 2002 and significantly increased the number of women in physics in South Africa, a feat she describes as a “capacity-building milestone”. The Black Science, Technology and Engineering Professionals NPO was also formed in 2005 to promote SET (science, engineering and technology) training among the black community. “I have chaired the organisations successfully for more than 10 years; I have also increased the number of physics students at UP through teaching undergraduate courses for under-prepared students.”

Such achievements resulted in Prof Diale winning the prestigious National Science and Technology Forum’s NSTF-South32 Award for Engineering Research Capacity Development in 2018. Another highlight of her career was when she attended the first International Conference on Women in Physics. “I was very excited about talking to women who had experienced obstacles and eventually achieved success.”

She says managing work and family life requires sacrifice and support. “When my son was in primary school, I sacrificed a management career and took a low-paying job so that I could be involved in raising him.” The sacrifices were costly, she says. “But without proper mentoring, one could waste time with trivial issues instead of adding value to your career. The word that helped me get to where I am is ‘focus’.”

As for her focus at UP, Prof Diale is aiming to see least five PhD students graduate a year. “Many universities in Africa still have academics without PhDs – PhDs are the think tank of a country and contribute immensely to the economy.” For Prof Diale, a lack of PhD graduates means there is a dearth of original technology that can contribute to solving a country’s problems. “With proper funding and mentoring, one can make it to the top easily. That is why I mentor academics who have just obtained their PhD to move up the career ladder. Without mentorship, it is easy to lose focus.”

Another aspiration she has at UP is to have a fully functioning laboratory to do her research with ease. “I am interested in being a scientist with my own facilities and funding. When you have facilities, you can work well in a capacity-building project.”

There is no doubt that, through her deliberate efforts to raise the number of women in the field of physics, Prof Diale is a champion of women. When it comes to the distressing issue of gender-based violence in South Africa, she believes it can be eradicated only when children are taught about it at a young age and by conscientising those in abusive relationships about how to recognise abuse. “Those in abusive relationships should use the many support structures provided by government and NPOs to report issues and deal with problems.”

- Author Primarashni Gower
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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