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BY Mildred Europa Taylor, 10:30am June 20, 2023,

25-year-old Nomhle Ngwenya is the youngest and first Black woman PhD graduate at Wits University’s science faculty

Nomhle Ngwenya. Photo: Twitter/Nomhle Ngwenya

African girls and women in STEM face various challenges, including limited access to resources, gender bias, and lack of representation. Still, some are beating the odds to become great in the field, contributing immensely to the advancement of science and technology. According to the World Bank, females represent 30% of students graduating from STEM fields in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Nomhle Ngwenya is one the few African women inspiring young girls in Africa to pursue careers in STEM. Last year, she became the youngest Ph.D. graduate at the University of the Witwatersrand’s science faculty. At 25 years old, she also became the youngest academic to obtain a Ph.D. in science. The South African was also the first Black woman to move straight from an honours program to a Ph.D. in the history of Wits, according to News24.

Ngwenya, who grew up wanting a career in geography, said she never imagined making history in academics. She was at the time very interested in how the environment or geography affects society and vice versa. “Geography is such a multidisciplinary subject. It’s not just climate change, but economic development, society and more. You get everything in one component. That’s why I enjoyed geography even from my high school days,” she said to News24.

Enrolling for a BA degree in sociology and geography at Wits in 2015, Ngwenya completed the degree in 2017 before moving on to pursue a bachelor of science honours degree in geography. According to News24, the specialized degree “looked at sustainability science, water science and human geography components, including environmental management and other rarely covered topics.”

And during her honours year, Ngewenya’s research topic looked at public participation and stakeholder engagement in carbon capture and storage, the outlet reported. She did very well in her research project and her supervisor, Professor Danny Simatele, was of the view that the level of work and detail which went into that honours project was beyond honours level. He subsequently recommended Ngwenya to skip master’s and go straight into a Ph.D. program that took three years to complete.

Indeed, besides her strength in academics, her supervisor who she describes as “amazing” helped her to succeed. The young female researcher said her supervisor made sure that they had deadlines and saw to it that they worked according to those deadlines. “But it also helps to have someone who understands the research process, how to conduct a thesis, the different components of compiling the thesis,” she said while encouraging undergraduate students to further their studies after earning a degree.

Being the only child, Ngwenya got a lot of support from her parents, who invested highly in her education. But she said she was never raised to always think that she is not able, or she doesn’t have the potential to be whatever she wanted to be. While most parents were buying toys for their kids, Ngwenya told Nature Africa that her father usually got her books to read while her mother installed values of perseverance and hard work.

Their guidance has helped her to triumph today as one of Africa’s young, female researchers working in the STEM field. Passionate about climate finance and climate issues in Africa, Ngwenya believes “since we are the most impacted continent, because of climate change, we need to be at the forefront in terms of coming up with innovative solutions to address the challenges that we face in our continent.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 20, 2023


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