Women's Month 2023: Dr Joyful Elma Mdhluli

Women’s Month 2023: Dr Joyful Elma Mdhluli

August is Women’s Month, and this year the National Research Foundation (NRF) is celebrating the remarkable contributions that have been made by women researchers for the betterment of humanity. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us.

Dr Joyful Elma Mdhluli is a Fellow at The Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD). The OAD is a joint project of the International Astronomical Union and the NRF, with the support of the Department of Science and Innovation, and is operated by NRF-SAAO. Dr Mdhluli also received funding from the NRF for her Master’s and PhD studies.

What impact did the NRF have on your studies/career?

My Master’s degree was generously funded by the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials (CoE-SM), a distinguished organisation known for its commitment to advancing research in the field. As part of their sponsorship, I had the privilege of embarking on my inaugural international trip to visit our esteemed international collaborators where I engaged in crucial experimental work.

Throughout the course of my MSc, the CoE-SM continued their support by financing my attendance at prestigious international conferences. These conferences afforded me invaluable opportunities to showcase my research findings to a global audience, fostering meaningful connections with leading experts in the field.

I take pride in the fact that my dedication and hard work culminated in the successful completion of my MSc with distinction, a testament to the exceptional academic environment and guidance provided by the CoE-SM.

Furthermore, I am deeply grateful to the NRF for the sponsorship of my Doctoral degree. The NRF’s support extended over three years and was accompanied by a well-considered extension, affording me ample time to fully immerse myself in my studies and bring my research endeavours to fruition.

What has been your study/career journey?

My journey to where I am today has been quite unexpected. Pursuing a PhD in Physics was not a conscious decision during my time at University; rather, it seemed to evolve naturally. Suddenly, I found myself immersed in my Master’s degree and determined to achieve a Doctoral degree. It all began when I enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in 2011 for my undergraduate degree. Now, after 12 years, I proudly hold a Doctoral degree, enriched by countless invaluable life lessons from my experiences at Wits.

Similarly, my path to the OAD was unforeseen. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly resonate with their goals and objectives which align closely with my own passions and aspirations.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

I recently joined the OAD in June 2023 and form part of the Astronomy for Mental Health Flagship. This Flagship looks at exploring how astronomy can help improve the mental well-being of vulnerable groups by focusing on the importance of mental health for development, the inspirational potential of astronomy knowledge and tools, and interdisciplinary collaborations.

Why is your research/studies important?

The Astronomy for Mental Health Flagship focuses on exploring how astronomy can help improve the mental well-being of people. As a recent graduate, I understand the amount of stress postgraduate students go through. I joined the OAD team with the hopes of seeing how the Astronomy for Mental Health project can help postgraduate students. The importance of mental health in postgraduate students cannot be overstated. The intense academic pressure and competition they face can lead to burnout, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Prioritising mental well-being fosters resilience, improves productivity, and ensures a positive academic environment. Addressing these challenges early on equips postgraduate students to become successful, well-adjusted professionals who contribute positively to society.

There is still a long way to go to truly achieve equity and a sense of belonging for women, be it within the research community or society in general. How do you envision yourself contributing to this space?

I am part of the strategic planning committee of Black Women in Science (BWIS) – a community of Black researchers that aims to promote the participation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers. I am also secretary of the Women in Physics in South Africa (WiPiSA) committee, which encourages young women to go into Physics.

All these roles have added a sense of belonging and joy to my life. These are just some of the things I do to contribute to the space for supporting women in science.

What advice do you have for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers?

Throughout my studies and career journey, I’ve realised there are countless things I wish I had known earlier, and much advice I’d give my younger self. Now that I’m all grown up, I’ve come to understand that despite guidance from others, facing a situation is always overwhelming. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that it’s possible to overcome challenges.

Although I can’t precisely outline how, I encourage you to dare to dream big and pursue those dreams with unwavering determination. Believe in yourself and take the leap!

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