Youth Month 2021: Mishumo Nemathaga

Youth Month 2021: Mishumo Nemathaga

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the Youth of the NRF who are Advancing Knowledge, Transforming Lives and Inspiring a Nation. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young dreamers and achievers who are affiliated with the NRF through their work or studies.

Ms Mishumo Nemathaga is currently a Master’s of Science in Agriculture student at the University of South Africa (UNISA), focusing on Animal Science. She is funded for her Master’s studies by the NRF and also received NRF funding for her Honours studies.

This is her story…

I am a 27 year-old South African born in Limpopo Province (Venda). I lived in Venda for a few years and moved to Gauteng with my parents. I grew up in a very loving family. I attended La Montagne Primary School (2001-2007) and went on to attend high school at Princess Park College. I then moved on to complete my Matric at Lehlabile Senior Secondary School in 2012.

My childhood was very normal. Even though I came from a family that was always rich in heart but disadvantaged, my parents never made my upbringing feel poor. My dad worked as a gardener after we moved to Gauteng. He studied to become a carpenter and has been working as a carpenter to provide for his family. My mother worked as a domestic worker and later studied to become a caregiver. I was the only child for 11 years – my younger brother was born in 2004.

I had always been a curious child and enjoyed learning new things. Even though my parents were not well off, my upbringing motivated me every day to not only believe in myself but also believe in my parents. My upbringing was full of value and made me see life from a different perspective.

My primary education really shaped me and introduced me to subjects that opened my young mind. My love for science started when I was in primary school (Grade 6). I really enjoyed the lessons and mini-projects that I had to do during my Life Science and Technology classes. I started to have a greater interest in Life Science as a subject. The mini-projects that the teacher gave of mammals, reptiles and the ecosystem gave me a reason to find myself searching the internet looking for the meaning of life sciences. Internet Explorer gave me a definition that changed my future goal, dreams and desires forever. The explanation spoke of living things and even gave examples of animals and small organisms. I continued to search until I saw the word “biologist” and the definition fascinated me so much. I decided then and there that when I am grown up, I want to become a biologist. I went home that day and told my mom about my ambition. The reason why I pursued an academic journey in microbiology, zoology and even agriculture was due to my 12 year-old self!

After completing my matric, I registered for an Electrical Engineering course and had totally forgotten about my 12 year-old self. My uncle eventually convinced me to reconsider and if possible to take a gap year just to figure out what I really wanted to do as he believed I was being pressured to take a course because it was available. After taking a six-month gap, I decided to register at UNISA for a Bachelor of Science in Life Science (Microbiology and Zoology stream). My decision wasn’t that hard as I decided to go back to my interest and aspirations.

After completing my BSc I obtained a Bachelor of Science Honours in Life Science (Microbiology stream) which was one of the best academic decisions that I ever made. My research journey really changed my perspective of science and I was so inspired by my supervisor – she made me believe that, as a black South African woman in science, my dreams are valid.

I believe in the conservation of wildlife to promote agricultural diversity, help with human health and improve lives. I have a great passion for our environment and a sense of appreciation, believing we can be the change we want to see in our environment. Protecting our biodiversity is very important and I want to contribute to continued solutions for the near future. I want to contribute to the detection of diseases and research the cause in human and animal life to find solutions that can control and even prevent the spread of diseases within the environment.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

The challenges that I have personally faced is not having a mentor when I needed one and studying through an open distance e-learning university. My previous learning experiences (High School) had never prepared me for a long-distance institution. Having to self-discipline and find the correct study routine was very hard. I had to grow up and mature mentally to make it through my first six months of long-distance learning. Funding was also a challenge as a lot of bursaries don’t cater for long-distance studies, but through hard work and by never giving up I received a bursary and I learnt that hard work pays off.

Being a UNISA student is very challenging compared to face-to-face institutions. A lot of my first-year modules had e-tutors but I had to work through study guides on my own do assignments and prepare for exams on my own. The topic of finding a mentor was rarely discussed so it is something that I was informed about after tough/hard times had already made me stronger.

All these obstacles only made me stronger and developed a person that works 10 times harder. I learnt that I am responsible for my studies and that giving more time to my studies means I’m a step closer to becoming a scientist.

After going through my BSc and Honours studies I have become a part of a generation of African scientists that face challenges in STEM, which includes “recognition and the adequate and accurate science communication of STEM” in a developing country. Recognition is very important as this grows a country’s visibility within STEM fields and opens doors of greater opportunities for those in STEM. This is one of the reasons why I started my science page (Free Science on Facebook) with an aim of not only communicating science to senior phase (Grade10-12) learners and university students but to also develop a platform that recognises the STEM fields and provides accurate and adequate science communication to the society at large. I have learnt that even though I face challenges and fail along the way, I should never fail to try again.

What is your area of expertise?

I am conducting research that will have a greater impact on the smallholder farming environments, and biodiversity as a whole. My research focus is on Ascaridia galli parasites that affect village (Gallus gallus domesticus) chickens. Ascaridia galli parasites infect chickens and can result in fatal diseases. Conducting this kind of research will impact African countries and help with poverty alleviation.

How can your research/work advance knowledge, transform lives and inspire a nation?

My research work will help promote globally competitive research innovation. The study will help farmers rear chickens that will resist nematodes and help increase poultry productivity within rural areas. This will help smallholder farmers and improve their livestock and food productivity which will meet the nutritional needs of low-income households. The research will help provide healthy food that is free from nematodes to communities that rely on chickens for their livelihood, furthermore contributing positively to the global goal of combating hunger in Africa. Farmers will also be empowered to integrate new farming systems and develop new skills as well as knowledge on hygienic farming strategies.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

My first proudest moment was receiving a letter stating that I have completed my BSc qualification. Education has always been a big part of my life and I want to find myself in simulating environment that will use my knowledge and skills to contribute to solutions for the future. Becoming qualified meant I was not only a graduate but an assist within the science discipline.

I am part of the 2021 Black Women in Science Fellowship program. The fellowship has given me the platform to introduce myself not only to other fellows but also to opportunities that have encouraged me as a scientist and also imparted knowledge and insight into how to incorporate entrepreneurship, business, financial management and investments with science. The organisation has also provided knowledge and awareness of other science fields and has challenged me to arise as an African child, bold and ready to make a difference.

My first interview as a Fellow was a highlight. We are faced with challenges daily as black women in science of not only recognition but also lack of representation. The Black Women in Science organisation has been a great platform that has given me recognition as a scientist and also exposed me to opportunities that have encouraged me and laid a new path before me that I’m taking with confidence.

I also had the privilege of being profiled by Visibility STEM Africa to inspire the Next Generation.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic (and national lockdown) change the way you work/study? How did you adapt to the “new normal”?

Since Unisa is a long-distance university the lockdown wasn’t a challenge for me. Communication with my Supervisor was positive and I was able to complete my academic year. The only challenge I had was having to wait for communication from the University with regards to when students would be able to use the laboratories for research purposes.

The new normal came as a shock but I had to adapt and focus on the positive. As a scientist, I also had the opportunity to learn more about the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that had caused the nation to lockdown. Each and every day was more insightful and made me recognise the full worth of life. I salute all the scientist/researchers that risked/risk their lives for a better tomorrow.

What is the best advice you have ever received (and from whom)?

You are a force to be reckoned with, but stay humble in all your endeavours. Through self-evaluation and learning to find myself, my purpose, my interests and aspirations I have always reminded myself that I am a strong African woman, but I should never allow success to get in the way of my purpose, interests and aspirations. I hope to make a difference one learner at a time, using my Free Science platform. In addition to the above, I have a passion to make a difference in Africa through research and more research, and I believe that success doesn’t compare to making a generational difference.

What, in your opinion, are some of the best ways to get youngsters interested in science-related careers?

One of the most impactful resources that made me find interest in science-related careers was my surroundings. I went to a primary school that did not lack educational resources/materials, so every day was exciting and insightful. An educational primary school needs to have educational resources that can be used to teach learners science-related work practically. Fundamental science ideals and teachings that are covered practically with class experiments and fieldwork is very important as this develops the minds of learners helping them understand the underlying scientific concepts.

Parents can help by buying their children educational toys at a young age and by also encouraging reading by buying scientific books, based on a child’s age. Books like Outdoor Maker Lab by Robert Winston can keep a 10-year-old out and about, learning many fun and insightful experiments. These kinds of books open up a child’s mind and allow them to become conceptual thinkers who will learn to analyse information, investigate, and create solutions.

Scientific communities need to develop community projects that will see young girls and boys, especially in rural areas, participating and becoming winners. Recognition is also important. Young girls and boys relate to what they are able to see, so mentorship sessions/science fairs/career guidance and science workshops in high schools are very important to develop one’s self-esteem.

Scientist/student scientists need to find time and give back to their community by embarking on mentorship projects and school motivation sessions where one talks to young girls and boys about their journey and paint a picture that will change their understanding of science and help them develop an interest in STEM careers. I believe that in the STEM world we learn from those who pursued it before us, they are the greatest mentors.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

  • To create a social platform that will assist senior phase (Grade 10-12) learners by imparting knowledge and awareness of science careers. The aim is to reach as many senior phase learners as possible before they set foot in universities.
  • I would like to start a non-profit organisation that assists rural schools with educational resources and materials that can make learning easy and fun.
  • I would love to contribute to research that will contribute positively to the global goal of combating hunger. I believe that as a continent (Africa) we are not “History” but the “Future”. We possess potential and are conceptual thinkers that can use research to change the narrative surrounding Africans, so I aspire to lead research in Africa that will not only bring the globe to us but, most importantly, impact our beautiful continent. 
  • A career aspiration that will personally be for me is to become an NRF-rated researcher. I would like to see my research impact the African nation and harvest a better future for all.

These are just some of my career aspirations. I believe we make career choices daily and as a scientist, I should never stop aiming for greater goals, dreams and desires.

Just something additional: I have adopted an African penguin for one year at the National Zoological Gardens (Pretoria Zoo). The adoption program has given me the opportunity to assist the zoo a few days a week during my spare time cleaning enclosures, preparing food and also assist to feed the seals and penguins.

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