Women's Month 2023: Dr Lee-Ann Sade Modley

Women’s Month 2023: Dr Lee-Ann Sade Modley

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 Lee-Ann Sade Modley is a Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head of the Department of Geography, Environmental Management and Energy Studies at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Dr Modley is an NRF Thuthuka grantholder.

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

My funding journey with the NRF started in 2018 when I received my first Thuthuka grant as a Doctoral researcher. The funding allowed me to successfully plan and execute a research project on a community-based water resource management project in the Kaalspruit. This led to four Master’s doing their mini-dissertations on different aspects of the project and all four have managed to graduate as a result of the supervisory-linked bursaries. The project broadly aimed to focus on society and science and ways to bridge the gap in the community of Tembisa. The Thuthuka funding for this project also led me to my first international collaboration with a professor from the University of Basilicata, Italy. We have since worked together on many other projects and eventually signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two universities.

My second round of Thuthuka funding (2022-2024) was received for a similar project but in the Klipriver where we are also looking at the societal, environmental and economic aspects of community-based ecological restoration. The project focuses on societal impact and the community has seen the fruits of this project. Additionally, three Master’s students will graduate as a result of this project.

What has been your study/career journey?

I completed both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at UJ. I started my undergraduate degree in Human Physiology and Biochemistry and I struggled quite a bit. I decided to change my major to Zoology instead of Biochemistry and enjoyed the content and subject matter so much that I decided to do my Honours in Zoology.

During my Master’s and PhD, I decided to broaden my scope slightly and look at the environment more holistically through environmental management studies. I managed to get a job in environmental consulting for two years and then applied for an Assistant Lecturer position in the Department of Geography, Environmental Management and Energy Studies in 2014. I have been at UJ since and have been promoted twice from my first position.

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

My current research focus is on integrated water resource management. I try to bridge the gap between science and society through my work by engaging with communities (mostly disadvantaged) on ways to develop community-based ecological restoration plans. A large part of my work still involves water quality monitoring but a major part tries to incorporate societal aspects in order for us to achieve the SDG 6 goal.

My key research areas are in Tembisa (Kaalspruit) and Eldoradopark and Soweto (Klipriver). I also focus on different aspects of environmental management through environmental sustainability projects.

Why is your research/work important?

Previously, we attempted to find solutions on our own as scientists without any collaborative effort, excluding civil society to a large extent. They play a big role as custodians of their natural environments so we do need to start making more effort to engage, empower and uplift our communities. My research aims to close the gap and find solutions collaboratively, not only through multi-disciplinary partnerships but also through meaningful engagement with civil society as well.

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 have always tried to encourage my female students to be more confident and to push themselves to reach their goals while not forgetting that we are female, which means we will always have added responsibilities and roles that will require our attention. It is important that we try to maintain our work-study-life balance and always be kind to ourselves in the process. I always provide an additional level of emotional support especially to my female students because I understand the pressures that come with studying, working and being a mom and wife. I might not always have all the answers but I do know that emotional and mental support goes a long way.

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

Fortunately, there are more opportunities being provided to young women to encourage them to pursue an education and later a career in STEM. As young women, we need to remember that we are enough, we are capable and that the opportunities are there for us to grab and explore. It won’t always be easy, but anything worth achieving never is. I wish I had known before that failure is not fatal, instead, it is an opportunity for you to learn, unlearn, reflect and redirect.

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