At registration in first year, Rabia Jacobs faced a dilemma. The University of Cape Town (UCT) student hadn’t realised she needed two majors. Scanning the possibilities, geology seemed the best fit with environmental and geographic science. That choice, made on the fly, created the bedrock for geology postgraduate studies that the graduand hopes will culminate in a PhD.
The first part of that mission has now been accomplished: Rabia will graduate with a BSc in Environmental Science and Geology on 31 March. She will celebrate the achievement in the company of her supportive family; parents Rudewaan and Nadeema, and two elder sisters, Kauthar Conrad (also a UCT alumnus) and Saarah Jacobs.
Along the way, she and her postgrad peers have also been chipping away at stereotypes. Ten years ago, Rabia would have been a rarity in a UCT geology honours class. In a field trodden by men, it’s taken time to change that profile, she said. In 2022, most of her classmates are young women of colour, creating a buzz; the “feminine energy” underlying mutual belief and support, Rabia said.
“To be honest, it was challenging in the beginning.” In first year, she struggled with imposter syndrome and feeling welcome. “UCT is a difficult place to fit in.”
But in the Geological Sciences building, she found a home.
Five years ago, UCT wasn’t anywhere on her radar. Rabia was taking a gap year and into community greening and then urban farming to gain work experience and earn money (her dream of studying agriculture was scuppered by lack of funding).
“And that’s what really inspires me – it’s never over. There is always something more to be studied.”
“I’d always wanted to be a farmer. I was particularly interested in urban farming and how that helps communities.”
Rabia started out volunteering at the Oranjezicht City Farm Market while she was a pupil at Claremont High School, working part-time.
“I was volunteering to find out what goes into a farmers’ market,” she said.
She also started microgreens farming (microgreens are vegetable greens harvested just after the cotyledon leaves have developed), branching into kombucha and gradually building a catalogue of healthy products.
“During my gap year I was able to invest all my time but once I started university, that tapered off.”
But she still manages to supply the market, even if it’s only a few trays of microgreens each week.
“One day I hope to have a proper urban farm; I do see myself as an urban farmer.”
Looking back, the thrill of getting her hands dirty and working with nature and the soil may have been an early pointer to geology.
“My love for science started at [a] preschool in Tamboerskloof called Villa Maria. My dad and I would frequent local bookstores after school where I’d scan the kid section and found myself begging for this Little Blue Book of Science. This is where my love of science all started, and I still flip through that book today.”
While her dad taught her so much, looking back it was her mom who “subtly engraved my love for nature in me”.
“I have lots of fond memories of us playing in the garden and frequently going to the beach (my second home). One memory stands out. I was about five and I loved playing with the pebbles (what I now know as Cape Granite) and my mom would poetically explain to me how, through erosion, they’d reach the shore … It seems like destiny that I was meant to be studying the origin of those rocks.”
She sees graduation as a time of personal consolidation. Life has been a good teacher, she said, after hating geology in the early days, especially structural geology, which was maths and physics heavy.
“I can’t think in 3D!” she protested at the time.
“I ended up spending so much time just trying to figure it out. How could something be so difficult to crack?”
Yet in her first semester in third year, Rabia astonished herself by coming top of the class in structural geology.
“I was, like, what? That’s not me! And I thought, well okay, maybe I’m not too bad at this.”
Falling for rocks
As her confidence grew, Rabia fell in love, captivated by the stories rocks told; of deep time and the earth’s history; their elemental secrets pointers to the past and the future.
“And in terms of climate change, I feel geochemistry is really at the forefront. Looking at palaeoclimates may provide clues about our future climate.”
For Rabia, that’s the adventure of learning and study. She has since developed an interest in geochemistry. On field trips Rabia is in her element; out in nature, exploring the rocks. These hands-on excursions also marked the start of a parallel process of growth: to claim her identity as a young Muslim woman at UCT. When vegetarian food was offered on field trips, she accepted it, but later realised she wasn’t being true to herself and asked for halaal meals instead.
“It’s not what I look like on the outside but the value I can bring to the table.”
It helps that her honours supervisor, Dr Miengah Abrahams, is a role model for Rabia and others among her peers. And that those close to her have always spurred her on.
“I grew up in a home where my parents always encouraged me; it’s not what I look like on the outside but the value I can bring to the table.”
As a woman in science, Rabia is aware of that value, both to research and to creating a home for others to thrive.
“Science is amazing. There is always something new. Nothing’s certain. There’s so much potential. And that’s what really inspires me – it’s never over. There is always something more to be studied.
“There are so many women out there changing the world of science; contributing to science and geology and changing the narrative and look [of the field].”
Message to her younger self
To other young women in science facing challenges like hers in first year, Rabia offers this advice: “Just push through it. Concentrate on your academics. I also strongly recommend getting involved in clubs and societies because university is huge. There are so many people, but you meet new people through these societies.
“I used to see posters around campus advertising business workshops, lectures on biomimicry and that sort of thing. I’d start talking to people there.”
Reach out to others, “your peers in class, whoever you feel most comfortable with”.
“Have faith in yourself: you’ve made it this far, getting into UCT. You are worth it. Also, have something that centres you: faith, meditation, yoga.”
“It’s about ubuntu and adopting the basic spirit of overcoming as a student.”
There have been many inspirational people along her way. At high school it was her English teacher, Athambile Masola, who got her to speak in front of 800 people at the end-of-year high school celebration.
“I was very shy at the time, but accomplishing that speech was a turning point for me. She was an amazing mentor and I still look up to her today; she recently even published her own book. It truly is all these successful women who I draw inspiration from, so I can’t really pinpoint one person I look up to.”
As for the qualities of an inspirational graduate, Rabia pauses for thought.
“Be authentic, faithful to who you are. Support your peers and help them out. Lift each other up. I might not be good at maths, but you might be. I might be good at science, and you might not be. We can help each other. It’s about ubuntu and adopting the basic spirit of overcoming as a student – and not forgetting about your peers.”
As for the future, she is planning for a master’s degree, with networking and hopefully some travelling. Global South perspectives are important, she said.
“Many people see South Africa as part of the Third World ... We often look to the Global North for solutions. But we’ve got so many opportunities to create our own solutions – and so many young students with great minds.”
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