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Representation plants seeds of success for new woman researchers

An interview with Rendani Nenguda by Tatjana Baleta


Every morning at 8 undergraduate students stream into the University of Witwatersrand’s biology lecture hall, weaving through the sea of wooden desks to find their seats. Today’s lecture: plant physiology. The next generation of biologists sits attentively as the complex processes through which plants function unravel before them, new words like “RuBisCO” and “mesophyll” absorbed into their minds. Rendani Nenguda was one of them, and she cites these lectures, or rather the person giving them, as the seed of her career in environmental research.

Beginning with these lectures, Professor Mary Scholes became an integral figure of inspiration in Nenguda’s academic career, which led Nenguda to her current position as Research Associate at Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation (OGRC). Scholes is Professor of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand. With over 25 years of research experience, she is a leader in her field, the recipient of multiple national and international awards, and boasts an extensive publication and student mentorship record. In addition to a career that speaks for itself, her encyclopaedic knowledge, demand for excellence, and tendency to slip into a career mentorship role mid-lecture, enraptures her students. “If you asked anybody in that class, they wanted to be her, as a scientist” says Nenguda.

Switching from her initial plans to become a microbiologist, Nenguda went on to do an Honours in ecology, citing Prof Scholes’ career advice as a major determining factor in her decision. During Honours, Scholes’ course on global change cemented Nenguda’s desire to impact the world on a larger scale. “I wanted to be someone who makes a difference on the ground; someone that tells the full story. Take rhino poaching as an example: I don’t want to look at how just the rhino is impacted, but also how humans and the entire ecosystem are impacted.” With this in mind, she pursued a master’s degree focussing on urban food security and climate change, with Scholes as her supervisor.

Sally Archibald, Associate Professor at the University of Witwatersrand and one of the world’s leading savannah and global change researchers, is another of Nenguda’s role models. “Seeing these women in the sciences, not just occupying positions for the sake of filling a quota but occupying leadership positions in their field because they’re highly capable, was immensely inspiring to me as a young researcher.”

Leaky pipelines and glass ceilings

According to a 2017 UN report, only 30% of female students in higher education are in STEM-related fields. Women account for just 28% of global researchers although this figure varies significantly on national and regional levels. Almost one in two researchers are women in Southeast Europe (49%) but less than one in three in sub-Saharan Africa (30%). Although on average women enrol equally to men at undergraduate and master’s level, female representation drops with each subsequent step up the academic ladder – a phenomenon termed “the leaky pipeline”. As a result, the glass ceiling remains, and women are largely absent from the highest levels of scientific research and decision making.

“If we want to be in a position to create robust solutions to the problems we face in society, then we need proper representation” Nenguda says. “If only a third of researchers are women, there’s a low likelihood women will be represented by the solutions we create. The research that shapes our world will be biased against women”. Nenguda and the rest of the team at OGRC are well aware of the need for greater equity for women in research. As a philanthropic organisation focussed on research and conservation, they’ve found that appraising their funding structures can prevent the exclusion of women in research.

Barriers for women in research must be removed

One of the reasons women leave academia at or post-PhD level is maternity or childcare leave. In the academic world, a fixation on frequent publication as well as funding restrictions that fail to account for lifestyle choices women may make can significantly disadvantage women who take career breaks for family. “If you’re over certain thresholds like age while under thresholds like number of publications and experience you can no longer qualify for funding. By the time women get back into the field, they’ve surpassed thresholds”, says Nenguda.

OGRC is removing those barriers to prevent the exclusion of women in their funding. OGRC’s Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer Grant for example, a US$ 150,000 early career researcher prize for inter- and trans-disciplinary research that seeks solutions to African challenges, stipulates that lead applicants “should have no more than seven years work and/or research experience post degree… (including family-related breaks)”.

Nenguda also highlights the need for organisations to address their own unconscious internal biases: “It’s a form of adaptive management: we’re continuously re-evaluating who and how we fund and partner with to ensure we support representation”. It’s also about having those difficult but meaningful conversations – “when you walk into a room and female representation is lacking, you just have to be bold enough to ask where the rest of the team is.”

Ndoni Mcunu, climate change and agriculture researcher and founder of Black Women in Science, is another role model to Nenguda. “She understands the lack of woman representation in research, especially women of colour, and is bold enough to say, ‘I’m going to be that voice, I’m going to start those tricky discussions and I’m going to be excellent at it’. She is a person I can look up to.”

Nenguda was fortunate to study under women who are leaders in their field. These women are pathfinders; seeing them succeed as scientists and leaders enables others to do the same. Sitting in front of Prof Scholes in those plant physiology lectures years ago, Nenguda was inspired to bloom into the environmental researcher that she is today. “I remember Prof Scholes saying: ‘Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you need to prove yourself more than a man’. For someone who is doing so much, is in a position of authority, and is so respected to tell us, “Prove yourself because you’re you” … she won me over to environmental sciences.”


Tatjana Baleta

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