Women science winners are role models

18 August 2010 | Story by Newsroom

No fewer than three UCT researchers featured among the recently announced winners of the South African Women in Science Awards (WISA), made annually by the Department of Science and Technology in Women's Month to recognise and create incentives for women scientists and researchers, and to create role models for young women and girls.

Profwssor Jill Farrant  Prof Karen Sliwa-Hahnlet  Dr Floretta Boonzaier 
Distinguished researchers: UCT's three winners of DST Women in Science Awards - Prof Jill Farrant, Prof Karen Sliwa-Hahnle and Dr Floretta Boonzaier.

2009 runner-up Professor Jill Farrant was named the Distinguished Woman Scientist in the Life Sciences, while Professor Karen Sliwa-Hahnle was second runner-up in the same category. In turn, Dr Floretta Boonzaier finished as first runner-up in the Distinguished Young Woman Researcher in the Social Sciences or Humanities category. For more on the awards, see The South African Women in Science Awards.

Farrant, of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and recent winner of the €100 000 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, was singled out for her work on drought-tolerant plants and crops, her research and publication track record, and her international and national standing. Mention was also made of the Equity Development Programme that Farrant runs to source funding for black and women students.

"Two awards in one year is a huge gift," she says. "This is by no means a singular effort. I celebrate by honouring the people - collaborators, students, and my wonderfully supportive partner and family who have helped make this possible."

Sliwa-Hahnle, professor of cardiovascular research at UCT and director of the hatter Cardiovascular Research Inistitute, was honoured for her "substantial" contribution to the understanding of the causes and treatment of unexplained heart failure of pregnancy (a condition that affects 1 in 1 000 women following childbirth in Africa), and to the Heart of Soweto study that she initiated and ran at Wits University, a programme that's now being rolled out nationally.

While flattered by the award and the acclaim - although it was fun hanging out with Farrant, Trevor Manuel and others at the awards ceremony - Sliwa-Hahnle takes more pride in the 'role model' element of the award. "Less than 10% of cardiologists in South Africa and Germany [her country of birth] are women," she says. "A lot needs to be done."

Boonzaier's WISA citation talks of her work in the Department of Psychology on the "construction of subjectivities" in relation to violence in intimate heterosexual relationships. That's a topic that Boonzaier has explored in her current projects, which includes a study conducted with Stellenbosch University that looks at intimate heterosexual relationships in a low income, semi-rural community in the Western Cape. She also runs studies on constructions of masculinity in the South African context, and how that relates to violence against an intimate women partner.

Boonzaier echoes Sliwa-Hahnle's sentiments on the importance of role models. "The academic environment has not always been welcoming for women, and black women in particular, and in this regard having role models and mentors can play an important role facilitating the advancement of women's careers and making them feel like they actually 'belong' in academia."

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