‘Become activists for science’

04 April 2024 | Story Niémah Davids. Photos Lerato Maduna. Read time 6 min.
The 2024 UCT STEM MentHER mentee cohort.
The 2024 UCT STEM MentHER mentee cohort.

“What does the world need? The world needs us to be different kinds of scientists. We need to be activists for science, and we need to be scientific activists. We need to show that what we are doing [is] evidence-based, and we actually need to go out there and fight for what is required.”

With these words, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Professor Liesl Zühlke aimed to inspire a group of young, aspiring matric scientists, and encourage them not to back down but to become agents for change in a world that needs their drive, expertise and innovative ideas.

The nine learners from schools across the Mother City have each demonstrated impeccable results and are keen to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). To fast-track this dream, on Monday, 2 April, the UCT cohort was formally inducted into the STEM MentHER Programme – an initiative aiming to produce a pipeline of South African women scientists.

The mentorship programme connects mentees (learners) with accomplished academics (mentors) at partner universities around the country. The mentors provide learners with the support and guidance they need as they decide on their field of study, begin the university application process, and ultimately make the daunting school-to-university transition. Several universities – including UCT, the University of Johannesburg and the University of KwaZulu-Natal – are part of the programme.

A mentee’s perspective

Before Professor Zühlke addressed the audience, former mentee Mishka Maharaj shared some reflections of her 2023 mentee experience. Maharaj, a first-year MBChB student at UCT, said the programme was a tool for guidance and a source of inspiration as she navigated her final year of high school. Ultimately, it prepared her for university life at “my dream university since primary school”.

Mentees listen as speakers address them.

Maharaj said she immediately connected with her mentor, thanks to their shared interests and passions. And their regular discussions provided her with much-needed insight into the various streams of medicine and the potential research opportunities in the field. It also opened her eyes to new opportunities and inspired her to work towards international working ventures with organisations such as the United Nations and Doctors Without Borders.

“I’ve made the most incredible friends on this programme, and you truly become sisters with the people that you meet in this space. It has been such a blessing to be part of this programme of strong and inspiring women,” Maharaj said.

What will it take?

When she reached the podium, Zühlke – a revered and internationally acclaimed paediatric cardiologist – told the audience that her plans to become a doctor had been afoot since the age of four. And with her family’s love and unwavering support, she didn’t lose sight of her dream. She urged the cohort to do the same.

Zühlke acknowledged that the group of mentees is probably outstanding at subjects like biology, chemistry, mathematics and science, which is why they will opt for a career in STEM. But she stressed that those capabilities are not nearly enough to succeed in the real world. What the mentees need to build a successful career is strong decision-making skills, the ability to negotiate effectively, people management competencies, and collaboration.

Prof Liesl Zühlke

“It is absolutely crucial. In the old days we used to call them ‘soft’ skills. They are actually not soft – they’re the toughest skills of all, and we need to be good at these kinds of things as well. And those are things that allow you to negotiate a STEM lifestyle in the way you need to, to be able to grasp your opportunities,” she said.

Values such as respect and integrity, which don’t form part of an academic transcript, are equally important, said Zühlke. These values would allow the mentees to leave their mark in the world as they aim and achieve high levels of excellence.

Contribute to the change

She reminded the audience that South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, driven by poverty as a result of rampant unemployment. But by addressing these and other pressing challenges such as climate change, and the ‘scourge’ of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, scientists across multiple fields can help to change that fact.


“We need to realise that women scientists have a vital role to play in scientific leadership [and] contributing to Africa’s development and transformation.”

“We need to realise that women scientists have a vital role to play in scientific leadership [and] contributing to Africa’s development and transformation,” she said.

“How we build these ladders [the programme] that get you where you need to go is going to make sure that we have better science for our community and better outcomes for women and [their] communities, and then create this cadre of women scientific leaders – and that will be better for everybody.”

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