Women's Month 2023: Onesimo Mtintsilana

Women’s Month 2023: Onesimo Mtintsilana

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.

Ms Onesimo Mtintsilana is a PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) and NRF-iThemba LABS in collaboration with the ATLAS Experiment at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN). She received funding from the NRF for her Master’s and PhD studies.

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

My relationship with the NRF has been instrumental in supporting my academic journey. I received MSc funding during my second year of Master’s and this enabled me to pursue my studies without financial worries. Subsequently, I converted my MSc to a PhD, and once again, the NRF provided funding which sustained me until last year.

The NRF’s support has had a profound impact on my studies and career. Without its financial assistance, I would have struggled to cover my educational expenses and may not have been able to continue my academic pursuits. Furthermore, last year, thanks to the NRF grant, I had the opportunity to attend a prestigious conference in Portugal and present my research, thereby broadening my academic network and exposure.

What has been your study/career journey?

My journey began in the rural town of Butterworth, Eastern Cape. As a young girl, I was fascinated by the wonders of the galaxy and I aspired to become a scientist. A pivotal moment came in Grade 4 when I had an inspiring teacher, Miss Khoza, who instilled a passion for science in me and made it captivating.

By the time I reached matric, I knew I had a deep love for astronomy, but I also had a complex relationship with physics. Although it was challenging, I found myself drawn to its mysteries, and in a way, physics chose me. Despite uncertainties, I pursued my interest in the field and enrolled at the University of Pretoria.

My journey in physics has been marked by both failures and successes, and there were moments when I considered changing careers. Nevertheless, something within me compelled me to keep going. Though I didn’t graduate in record time, I persevered and furthered my studies by pursuing a BSc Honours at WITS.

Today, I find myself in the final year of my PhD research, specialising in particle physics. Instead of exploring outer space, I now delve into the incredibly minute realms that can’t even be seen with the naked eye. It’s a thrilling experience, and I’m currently collaborating with the renowned CERN, the world’s largest lab for particle physics.

This journey has been a rollercoaster ride with its share of ups and downs, but I’m proud of where I am today. My passion for science and the cosmos has driven me to this point and I’m excited to see where my career in particle physics will take me next.

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

As a researcher in particle physics, specifically in the High Energy Physics stream, my focus is on understanding the fundamental building blocks of the universe and how they interact with each other. It’s like being a detective trying to decipher the mysteries of the tiniest puzzle pieces that make up everything around us.

To conduct my research, I work with the ATLAS Experiment, which is a sophisticated detector located at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Think of the LHC as a super-highway for tiny particles, where these particles are accelerated to extremely high speeds using powerful magnets and then made to collide with each other.

When particles collide, they release an enormous amount of energy which can create entirely new particles that exist only for a fleeting moment. This is akin to smashing two LEGO blocks together and seeing new pieces briefly formed from the collision before they disappear. The ATLAS detector acts as a massive and intricate camera, capturing the debris from these collisions. It records the paths, energies, and other properties of the particles produced during the collision.

Researchers like me study these collision events to understand the behaviour and characteristics of the newly formed particles. We are particularly interested in finding evidence of new and exotic particles that could help us unlock the secrets of the universe. By analysing the data from countless collisions, we aim to unravel the underlying laws of nature governing these particles and their interactions.

Ultimately, this research contributes to advancing our understanding of the universe at its most fundamental level and provides insights into the origin, structure, and evolution of everything we see around us. It’s like exploring the very essence of reality and gaining a deeper comprehension of the cosmos.

Why is your research/study important?

My research in particle physics holds significant importance as it delves into the fundamental aspects of the universe. At present, we have only managed to understand less than 5% of the Universe, leaving a vast majority as an enigma. Phenomena like gravity, for instance, cannot be fully explained using our current understanding of the laws of Nature.

Through my work, I aim to contribute to bridging this knowledge gap by studying the smallest building blocks of matter and their interactions. By unravelling the mysteries of particles and their behaviour during collisions, we hope to uncover new insights into the fundamental laws that govern the Universe.

One of the key motivations for conducting research at the ATLAS Experiment and the LHC is to explore the unknown. By creating conditions similar to those in the early moments of the Universe, we can potentially observe and study particles that may have existed shortly after the Big Bang. This allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the Universe’s origins and evolution.

Moreover, particle physics research has historically led to ground-breaking technological advancements that have transformed various industries. For instance, the World Wide Web was invented at CERN as a means to facilitate communication among researchers worldwide. Such spin-off technologies can have wide-ranging applications beyond the field of physics, impacting society in unforeseen ways.

In terms of knowledge transferability and skills to South Africa, being the only non-member state from Africa at CERN presents a unique opportunity. Collaborating with an international community of scientists at one of the world’s leading research institutions provides valuable exposure and experience for South African researchers. This collaboration fosters the exchange of expertise, technological know-how, and research methodologies that can be leveraged back in South Africa to advance scientific endeavours and address local challenges.

Furthermore, participation in international collaborations enhances the visibility and reputation of South African research and academia on a global scale. It can attract more resources and funding for scientific projects in the country, contributing to the growth and development of its scientific community.

Overall, the potential impact of my research lies not only in deepening our understanding of the Universe’s fundamental nature but also in fostering knowledge exchange and skills development, benefiting both South Africa and the broader global scientific community. As we continue our exploration into the unknown, we hold the promise of unlocking new frontiers of knowledge and inspiring future generations of scientists to continue this pursuit of understanding the cosmos.

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 envision myself as an active contributor to promoting equity and fostering a sense of belonging for women, both within the research community and society as a whole. I have already taken significant steps in this direction by engaging in various initiatives and projects.

As a member of the Women in Physics Forum under the South African Institute of Physics, I served on the executive committee as a student representative from 2018 to 2022. During this time, I dedicated myself to advocating for the empowerment of female students in physics across universities in South Africa. I went beyond my responsibilities and took the lead in a community-focused project that involved conducting outreach programs in rural areas.

One of the remarkable initiatives I spearheaded during the challenging period of the COVID-19 pandemic was the EmpowerHer project. In collaboration with Algorythm Tech and SIVENKOSI UPHAWU, we introduced primary and high school girls in rural schools across the Eastern Cape to hands-on science experiments, coding, and a special project of building an automatic hand sanitiser machine. This project was a significant accomplishment and has now expanded to Mpumalanga and Western Cape Provinces, reaching more learners and encouraging them to pursue their interests in STEM fields.

In addition to my work in physics and research, I also initiated a book drive initiative by reaching out to African universities to collect books. These books were then donated to the Etafeni Centre, a multi-purpose facility for AIDS-affected children and their caregivers. This initiative aimed to enhance access to educational resources and promote a culture of learning and curiosity among young individuals.

Furthermore, as a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Forum at CERN, I actively participate in raising awareness about visible and invisible diversity dimensions. This forum recognises the uniqueness of each individual and seeks to foster an inclusive and supportive environment for everyone.

Through my involvement in these initiatives, I strive to create opportunities for underrepresented groups, particularly women, in the field of physics and beyond. By empowering young learners and promoting diversity and inclusion in the research community, I hope to inspire positive change and contribute to building a more equitable and inclusive society. It is my belief that by supporting and uplifting one another, we can collectively create a better and more diverse future for all.

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

For girls interested in STEM-related careers, I would like to share some valuable advice based on my own experiences.

It’s essential to remember that you can’t have it all, and that’s perfectly okay. In today’s world, there’s often an unrealistic portrayal of women successfully juggling thriving careers, perfect motherhood, running companies, and maintaining impeccable physical health. While these are all wonderful aspirations, the reality is that each choice we make comes with its own set of trade-offs.

For example, if you aspire to become a Vice-Chancellor or the CEO of a company, you may have to prioritise your career ambitions over other aspects of life. This could mean missing out on social gatherings; not being able to attend every school function as a parent; or not always fulfilling certain traditional roles within the family.

The key message here is to recognise that life is about choices, and there will always be a price to pay for the paths we choose. Rather than trying to have it all, it’s important to be thoughtful about your priorities and make choices that align with your values and aspirations. Embrace your ambitions and the sacrifices that come with them, knowing that you are making decisions that are meaningful to you and your personal growth.

Remember, you are not a prisoner of your choices. It’s crucial not to feel confined or limited by societal expectations or external pressures. You don’t have to fit into predefined roles or meet unrealistic standards. Stay true to yourself and what you want to achieve in your STEM career.

Additionally, seeking mentorship can be a valuable asset in your journey. Whether it’s finding a mentor within your field or establishing peer mentorship, having someone to guide and support you can provide invaluable insights and encouragement.

Ultimately, pursuing a STEM-related career is a unique and rewarding path, and it’s okay to navigate it in a way that works best for you. Embrace the choices you make, be proud of your accomplishments, and continue to learn and grow on your journey to success. Remember, you have the power to shape your own destiny, and you don’t have to be a prisoner of your own choices.

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