Opening the doors of science

04 April 2016 | Story Andrea Weiss. Photo Michael Hammond.
Dr Tana Joseph is the first woman of colour to have been awarded a postdoctoral SKA fellowship.
Dr Tana Joseph is the first woman of colour to have been awarded a postdoctoral SKA fellowship.

Postdoctoral Square Kilometre Array (SKA) fellow Tana Joseph knows the value of firing a young imagination. That's what happened to her at the age of 11 when the Cape Times published a series of long-anticipated pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope.

“I started cutting them out and keeping a scrapbook. That's when I decided that this is the kind of science that I want to get into,” she recalls.

Her father was the person who bought the newspaper for her, but she credits both her parents – Lorraine and Quintin Joseph – for keeping her ambition alive.

“I was very lucky because they are both high school science teachers, so they encouraged that curiosity in me and my siblings.”

Parental support was crucial when it came to astronomy, says Tana. Back in the mid-1990s in South Africa, when she first saw those Hubble images, there was “no SALT (Southern African Large Telescope), no SKA; so the question was, 'Do we even do that in South Africa?' ”

By the time she had finished her undergraduate degree, SALT, near Sutherland, had been completed and her ambitions were beginning to look a lot more realistic as the South African government was showing clear intentions of investing in astronomy.


Her next step was an honours in physics at UCT, and this is when she began to feel a certain kind of loneliness that many women scientists before her have felt.

“I was one of only two women in the class – and the other woman was the only other person of colour. We only had one female physics lecturer the whole time I was there. I think that is still the case.”

Although she felt isolated, she didn't dwell on it at the time. “You don't realise it until afterwards; you are just trying to keep your head above water.” But she remembers what she calls the “micro aggressions”. Like the lecturer who said, “Oh, you're still here,” when she reported for class at the start of the new academic year.

In light of her experiences, she says it's no surprise that a recent survey found that the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) were the least transformed in South Africa. This is why she's committed to ensuring that anyone who might wish to follow in her footsteps should be encouraged to do so.

She is active in outreach and a natural public speaker – a recent Summer School class was hanging on her every word. She has given talks from primary school through to church groups and amateur astronomy organisations, and she has also done radio and print media interviews.

She also runs the astronomy department's job-shadow programme for high school learners, predominantly Grade 11s, and has kept track of whether it actually translates into future students. She's happy to report that seven of the 27 who have shadowed or attended the open day are now doing either physics or astronomy at UCT.

“It looks like it's working,” she says.

Ironically, Tana made a similar approach to the department when she was in Grade 11, but at the time she was told: “Sorry we don't do that.”

“That might have been the final straw for me, but I was fortunate that I had my parents on my side.”

This is why, even if the department is too busy to accommodate a learner, she will look for alternatives at the SKA office in Pinelands (just up the road from where she matriculated at Pinelands High School), the SA Observatory or the University of the Western Cape.

“I never want a learner to walk away feeling like this isn't a job for them.”

View from abroad

It was only when Tana started her MSc in astronomy that the doors really started to open for her, and she got the kind of international exposure that has shaped her thinking.

“I was finally doing exactly what I wanted to do and I started to travel for work. That was great.” She visited France and Germany and started to work with international collaborators.

In 2009 she enrolled for a PhD at the University of Southampton in the UK and lived abroad for close to five years. It was this experience that underscored what she believes is the essential problem of science in South Africa.

“I started to realise how isolated things are for a woman in science. It may seem a bit controversial to say this, but I feel like in South Africa we focus a lot on race and race relations, but ours is a more sexist society than it is racist. That's not addressed very often.”

She does, however, concede that there has been massive change in her department. It is far more diverse than it was 10 or 15 years ago, having had, among others, a woman head of department, Professor Renée Kraan-Korteweg.

In her mind, however, there's still much work to be done.

“I would say that the university should heed the call for change that is happening right now. We have the chance to get on the right side of history by taking on board what is happening. It's not too late to engage and make things right.”

Family first

Tana is very aware that if the end of apartheid had come too late for her, she too might have ended up in a high school classroom as did her parents, uncles and aunts.

“If you were a coloured person, the best job you could have was a high school teacher. That was the pinnacle. And that is what I would have done. I would have been a physics and maths teacher in high school.”

Not that she undervalues her family's teaching roots. Her mother still teaches in the Bonteheuwel school where she has been for 30 years and often helps Tana with advice around the job-shadowing programme or when it comes to career choices.

“She's had a lot of experience in difficult conditions. It's always good to have her feedback and input.”

Through this parental support, her siblings too have found their niche. Her younger sister, Laurelle, is enrolled for a PhD in supramolecular chemistry drug development at UCT; another sister, Tatum, is doing a master's in public policy; and her brother, Cole, has already developed a keen interest in palaeontology even though he's only in Grade 9.

“That's the problem with telling your kids you can be anything you want to be,” Tana jokes.

So, what is dinner around the Joseph family table like?

“Noisy,” says Tana. “We are a very opinionated, noisy family. People think I'm joking when I say I'm the quiet one, but my sisters out-talk me 10 to one!”

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