NRF-SAASTA's New Managing Director is Working Towards a Science-Literate South Africa

NRF-SAASTA’s New Managing Director is Working Towards a Science-Literate South Africa

It’s been a little over three months since Dr Mamoeletsi Mosia began her journey spearheading the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (NRF-SAASTA) as its Managing Director. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and an MCom in Leadership Studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She also spent more than a decade at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in various management and leadership roles, reinforcing her track record in providing strategic leadership to multi-disciplinary teams.

NRF-SAASTA is responsible for the advancement of public awareness, appreciation and engagement of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and innovation (STEMI) in South Africa. This involves forging partnerships with key players in the science engagement field in SA, such as science centres and universities, as well as research facilities both within and outside of the national Research Foundation (NRF).

“While most of our initiatives are geared towards future scientists and innovators, we also work with STEMI professionals to provide them with skills to communicate science in an effective manner, with the aim of making science more relatable to the gogo (grandmother) on the street” says Dr Mosia.

Science subjects are not usually popular in school. What made the young girl in you fall in love with science and what has kept your passion going to this day?

The science path chose me, with my aptitude for science and mathematics and as a top-performing learner throughout my school career, I was naturally directed towards this path.

I did not have a regular mathematics teacher in Grades 8 and 9, but I was fortunate enough to be part of a weekend programme where we did subjects such as maths and science. This is where my appreciation of initiatives lead by NRF-SAASTA stems from because I am a product and beneficiary of one.

This is also one of the things that got me interested in being part of NRF-SAASTA; the opportunity to inspire the likes of myself – someone who grew up in a township where there were no facilities or resources to help them make an informed decision about their future.

For me, it was a local pharmacist that helped me make that decision. It was in the way she explained to me, in simple terms, the difference between a chemist and a pharmacist (a term often misused as “chemist” in many townships). It is that ability to have a scientist explain things to you in a simplified and relatable manner that makes me value science engagement initiatives. Today, I hold a PhD in Chemistry.

Despite the progress made, a significant gender gap has persisted throughout the years at all levels of STEM disciplines worldwide. Please share your views on what role, and programmes, NRF-SAASTA plays in increasing public awareness participation of women and girls in science, and the NRF’s national facilities’ role in the success of these?

As NRF-SAASTA, one of our core objectives is to visit areas where resources and information are not easily available. We do not just go there to talk about and encourage careers in science but we specifically go to these areas with scientists, engineers and technologists so that learners can see that the face of a scientist could easily be that of a black female in regular jeans and All-Star sneakers. That changes perceptions completely because then, when a girl child can see herself in a scientist, she can believe that following such a career is possible.

A scientist can look like Einstein, yes, but a scientist can also be a young, modern and even fashionable woman who is doing exceptionally great things in her field. Presentation matters, and through our coordination with NRF facilities as well as our external partners, we have been able to expand on what the face of STEMI people looks like.

We also facilitate teacher training to ensure that our educators are able to teach maths and science better. This not only ensures increase in the pass rates, but also in numbers of children taking the subject. When parents and learners see others doing well in the subjects, they too have the confidence that they can do it.

Some of our activities, such as after school science clubs, allow learners to be creative with the STEMI subjects, thus increasing their interest in them. All these are not only meant to increase the number of black learners in the STEMI, but also females in general.

Where would you like to see NRF-SAASTA in future? What kind of plans do you have for the business unit?

In terms of going out there and reaching the public, I don’t think NRF-SAASTA is doing enough because NRF-SAASTA is simply not big enough. It is therefore crucial that we expand our collaboration networks so that we are working hand-in-hand with organisations with similar values and goals. I believe this will help us get to that ideal reach. There is also a need for us to coordinate science engagement activities in the country for us to realise the return on investment. This is the role that NRF-SAASTA is tasked to play.

Dr Mosia is certainly excited to join NRF-SAASTA and her mission seems to have the perfect balance between personal and professional. Having been one of those young girls who once lacked knowledge and information, she understands all too well the urgent need to encourage a science-literate South Africa.

I would love for NRF-SAASTA to be at the forefront of topical science matters, engaging the public on subjects such as the COVID-19 vaccine, for instance. Yes, it is scientists and researchers that are at the core of science matters, but I believe we should be driving the engagement and encouraging those conversations on a national level.

I will know that I have done my job when the day I leave here there is at least one young girl who says, “If it wasn’t for NRF-SAASTA, I would not be where I am today,”. I believe this is the driving force for all of us at NRF-SAASTA.

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