Two InspiringFifty SA winners hail from Plant and Soil Sciences

Posted on March 10, 2022

Two early-career scientists, Drs Jarishma Gokul and Khumbuzile Bophela from the University of Pretoria (UP)’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, were selected as InspiringFifty1 South Africa winners for 2021.

This non-profit initiative benchmarks and awards the 50 most inspiring women in #STEM each year at an awards ceremony held on 23 March. The InspiringFifty are important role models for encouraging more girls and women in technology and inspiring future leaders and entrepreneurs to follow in their footsteps. It has chapters in Belgium, Canada, Italy, South Africa, and many more.

According to Dr Gokul, Lecturer and Microbiome Research Group Leader in Plant Pathology, “I am humbled and so very grateful to join this group of tenacious, inspiring women and leaders. I have been exposed to intelligent, strong and talented women, mentors and teammates, my whole life, and they have consistently inspired me to continue nurturing my curiosity and ambition in delivering impactful contributions in science.”

“This is a collective win to each of these amazing unsung heroes who have supported, taught and cheered me on. The RAISE Project2 has shown that women are persistently underrepresented in prizes and awards in fields like medicine and science. Yet, these are important indicators of professional achievement. Therefore, everyone must be treated fairly and invested in deserving and highly qualified women. While our roles are sometimes outside the limelight, it is a great honour to be recognised for the hard work, dedication and accomplishments in STEM by our peers and the young men and women we mentor,” an elated Dr Gokul concluded.

Dr Gokul completed her PhD in 2017 in Polar Microbiology and Glaciology, Aberystwyth University, Wales, United Kingdom, through an NRF Study Abroad Scholarship. She has been awarded two sequential NRF Postdoctoral Fellowships (Innovation and Scarce Skills) since 2018 for her microbiome research at UP. She was also awarded a Food Systems Network Africa Fellowship (ARUA-UKRI) in 2021 for transdisciplinary research into the South African informal food system and a 2022 Africa-UniNet research award as Co-PI for cooperative research with Technical University Graz, Austria on “Wholesome Health through the Analysis of Microbiomes (WHAMi)”. Furthermore, she has acted as an expedition leader for the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics during the Southern oCean seAsonaL Experiment (SCALE) research voyage in 2019 and the Sub Antarctic Marion Island Relief voyage in 2018.

Dr Bophela, Lecturer and Soilborne Diseases Research Group Leader in Plant Pathology, is equally excited about this award. “This is a reminder of the importance of representation in STEM fields, having just recently celebrated the International Day of Women and Girls in STEM in February. Being recognised nationally affirms my role as an academic and in my pursuit of mentoring young girls to take up STEM subjects at secondary and tertiary education levels. In addition, becoming a member of the InspiringFiftySA organisation will open several opportunities to build collaborative networks with like-minded women who occupy spaces in all parts of the STEM industry, such as the business sector, technology industries, and academia.

I am looking forward to this incredible experience in my academic journey, to forging lifelong relationships of support and community with these exceptional women and inspiring more young women to join us in this journey.”

Dr Bophela added that “creativity and innovation are at its peak in a society that gives young girls and women equal opportunities in STEM, and inevitably this leads to growth and success. Therefore, having more female representation in STEM matters. It is by seeing more women occupying these spaces that young girls can envision themselves in such spaces too.”

She graduated with a PhD in Microbiology in 2021 at the University of Pretoria. Her research has received some recognition, among others, the Whitehead Scientific (Pty) Ltd travel award in 2018 to attend the 51st Congress of the Southern African Society for Plant Pathology. In addition, she won first place for an oral presentation at the Inaugural meeting of the American Phytopathological Society - African Division in 2021 and the Australasian Plant Pathology Society early career researcher award to attend the 2021 APPS online conference. She is also an alumnus of the Black Women in Science (BWIS)3 and an ASAPbio4 2021 fellow.

1. InspiringFifty is an initiative run by accelerateHER that aims to increase diversity in tech by making women role models more visible.

2. The RAISE project is a project that systematically tracks more than 2,750 awards and calculates the proportion of men and women who win them in the fields of science, engineering, technology, arts, mathematics and medicine.

3. Black Women in Science (BWIS) is a non-profit organisation supporting women of colour in STEM fields and promoting their visibility in South Africa.

4. ASAPbio is a scientist-driven non-profit organisation promoting transparency and innovation in life science communication.

- Author Martie Meyer
Published by Anna Semenya

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