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Women’s Month Feature: Aphiwe Hotele, SKA SA

In celebration of National Women’s Month 2017, the NRF is paying to tribute to our female researchers at the NRF managed National Research Facilities. We thank the ladies for volunteering to tell us a little about themselves and the work they do.

1. What did you study and where?

I studied BSc Computer Science and Biochemistry (University of Fort Hare), and did my Honours in Computer Science. I am currently finishing my MSc in Computer Engineering at the University of Cape Town.

2. What made you decide to choose your field of study? Is it what you envisioned for yourself while growing up?

I did not choose this career path, I stumbled across it. Growing up, computer science was never on my mind, I did not even know it existed. I used to see computers but I did not know the theory behind them. I wanted to be a medical doctor, but my dream was shattered in January 2010 when the results came out and I did not qualify to do medicine, even though I had done reasonably well. 

I went to do a BSc at the University of Fort Hare but because I did not apply, there was no space in main stream so they put me on the extended programme. The nature of this programme is that you do all the modules in the first year (which is two years) and you specialise in the third year. This sparked my interest in computer science. However, it didn’t end there! 

I stumbled across another career path in 2015 when I was invited to the SKA-YPDP open day. We spent two days in the SKA-SA offices in Cape Town. The first day was an introduction and the second day was practical. We were given a set of problems to solve and taken on a tour around the office. Suddenly, this sparked my interest in computer engineering! Now I am doing my MSc at UCT in Electrical Engineering. So I can safely say I did not find my career, it found me.

3. What are your responsibilities at your place of work and how long have you worked there?

I have been working at SKA SA for three years. My duties involve the designing and implementation of a sensor network for an immersion cooled environment. The design involves following the proper Systems Engineering approach to implement systems and I program microcontrollers to run the sensor networks. I am also leading the team’s school outreach program.

4. How do you think your work can benefit/impact South Africans and/or the world?

Being a computer scientist alone has an impact on many females, because seeing a woman accomplish in the area of STEM gives them hope that they can do it as well. It also has an impact on males from similar backgrounds as me because they can identify themselves through me and that is motivating – and motivation goes a long way! 

As mentioned above, I lead the team’s outreach program called IMBASA. The program has three layers: motivation, academic support, and financial support for students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. In the first layer we motivate students to do Maths and Science. Once they choose the subjects, we offer academic support through the tutoring program – employees from SKA SA volunteer their time during weekends to tutor the students. Lastly, when the students finish matric, a student is awarded a grant – which comes from donations from SKA SA employees. This program is still a pilot but has already transformed a number of students’ lives.

5. What obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?

I have been affected by gender discrimination. The number of females doing computer science is really low – there were four females in my Honours class. Interestingly, I never experienced discrimination from my fellow male classmates, but rather from other females who were not pursuing science careers. Senior women would make comments like: “How will you manage a home and a science career?”

Halfway through my second year I fell pregnant, which brought some additional challenges my way. Initially I thought it was the end of my career, but because of the amazing support I received from my parents, I made it! 

6. What makes you get up every morning?

My daughter. She gives me a sense of purpose, a reason to live, and a reason to be happy.

7. Who has been your greatest inspiration? Who saw your potential/encouraged you when the going got tough?

My parents, especially my mom. She is a very strong and brave woman. She encouraged me a lot from the time I was little. I think she saw something in me that a lot of people couldn’t see.

8. Is there any female role model(s) in the science industry that you look up to?

Yes. Nyalleng Moorosi was my Artificial Intelligence lecturer at the University of Fort Hare and the only female lecturer in our department. She introduced us to Python programming and is now a Senior Data Scientist at the CSIR. Her passion for science is just amazing! The conversations I had with her helped in shaping my career, encouraged me to try out new things, and to not be afraid to move out of my comfort zone.

My other female role model is Minister Naledi Pandor. She has done amazing work in promoting science not only in South Africa, but also globally. I admire her and the work she has done.

9. Which of your academic achievements are you most proud of?

I am proud that I got a BSc Computer Science cum laude from the University of Fort Hare.

I am proud that I was awarded the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) Bursary to study for my undergraduate and Honours studies.

I am proud that I am part of one of the biggest science projects, the Square Kilometre Array South Africa. 

I am proud that I will be a participant in the National Radio Astronomy (NRAO) National and International Non-Traditional Exchange (NINE) Program in New Mexico for eight weeks. The outcome of the program is that I will create a NINE hub in South Africa and that is exciting.

10. What is your vision for the future – what do you hope to achieve in the next ten years?

In ten years’ time I would like to play a role in ensuring that South Africa is  a country filled with highly skilled, employable mathematics and science graduates who can work anywhere in the world. I want to help shape a generation of graduates that can identify gaps and use their knowledge and skills acquired to fill these gaps through entrepreneurship and drive the economy of this country.

11. What is your advice for young women who want to pursue a career in STEM?

A science degree gives you a set of tools and you choose how, where and when to apply them. Your life is like a car: you are the driver of the car, you decide the type of car you want and it is up to you where you will park the car. Remember, there are many paths that lead to the same destination. Science is not made for clever people, it is made for hard workers, ambitious and dedicated people. It has nothing to do with gender or colour. 

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