It started with teaching mathematics to her dolls and then helping her young classmates master their numeracy skills. Since then, Faith February has made some giant academic strides of her own. The inspirational PhD graduand and mother of three gave up her lucrative day job, entrusted some of her parenting duties to a super supportive family – and went back school.
This voyage of discovery culminates on 15 December when Faith will don the distinctive red robe to graduate with a PhD in physical oceanography in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Sarah Baartman Hall. Her doctoral dissertation, titled “Influence of environmental parameters on atmospheric aerosol size distributions in a South African coastal zone”, explores the vital role of microscopic atmospheric particles, or aerosols, in Earth’s climate.
These are tiny, airborne particles of dust, salt and other organic material suspended in liquid or air above the ocean, which scatter and absorb heat and light, or energy. Collectively, their role is pivotal to understanding the atmosphere and predicting global warming and modelling climate change.
Her doctoral thesis adds to a growing body of knowledge in this under-researched area. She captured and analysed marine aerosols in False Bay where winds from far south and Antarctica carry pristine aerosols, uncontaminated by land, pollution, and other aerosol sources. The output of these measurements (for example, details about aerosol concentrations) can then be included in climate models.
‘Over and done with’
“It still feels unreal,” Faith said after learning her PhD dissertation had been passed. “But I think the grad ceremony will finally stamp it in my brain: it’s over and done with!”
Her work was supervised by UCT’s Dr Katye Altieri of UCT’s Department of Oceanography; and co-supervised by Professor Alexander van Eijk, principal scientist at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, and professor (industrial chair) at the École Centrale de Nantes, France; and Professor Jaques Piazzola of the Mediterranean Institute of Oceanography at the University of Toulon, France.
Born and raised in Kraaifontein, Faith is a ‘first gen’; the first in in her family to get a degree. The PhD caps a stellar academic journey. But going back to school was not an easy decision.
“It was quite a journey,” she said.
First, she gave up a well-paid job, the family taking a financial hit.
After graduating from Stellenbosch University with an MSc in physics and mathematics, Faith had landed a job at the Institute for Maritime Technology (IMT), a 16-year career that saw her elevated to the role of chief scientist.
In fact, it was during the nine-months of the First European–South African Transmission Experiment (FESTER) to study aerosol particles from the atmosphere in False Bay that she became convinced of their potential role in modelling climate change – and the need for more research.
“We can now provide the broader scientific community with new data on atmospheric aerosols.”
“In the Southern Hemisphere, there is very little observational data that can contribute to the impact or inputs to these prediction models. With the new location in Simon’s Town, False Bay, where we’ve measured results, we can now provide the broader scientific community with new data on atmospheric aerosols.”
On the project, Faith was responsible for the maintenance, data acquisition, data analysis and back-up of the aerosol equipment.
“I saw the huge amount of data coming in and asked the co-leader of the FESTER, Professor van Eijk, if I could do my PhD on this.”
But instead of doing her PhD at the Physics department in Stellenbosch, she was referred to UCT.
Her second challenge in returning to academia was her role in the family; a hands-on mom to three children, Henry (now 11), Stefan (10), and Ariana (nine). This involved rearranging responsibilities and duties – school drops, meals, homework – entrusting these to her husband, Stanley, and highly supportive family.
And when she was invited to travel to France and the Netherlands, where her co-supervisors are based, her husband did double duty with the children.
But there were also gains that came, unexpectedly, during the process.
“I wrote all these tongue twisters on little cards to keep them occupied while I was in meetings.”
As the data analysis got more intense, Faith opted to work from home, and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she suddenly found her study space shared by everyone else.
“But in the end, it was the best way to give the children first-hand experience of their mum studying. And that was an education too,” she said. “They learnt new words, such as oceanography, atmospheric aerosols, biogeochemistry, and meteorology. I wrote all these tongue twisters on little cards to keep them occupied while I was in meetings.”
And with their mom attending virtual conferences or mentoring meetings at all hours, the children also learnt about the different world time zones. And they witnessed her commitment and dedication to her work.
It’s not surprising then that the eldest, Henry, recently collected a raft of end-of-year academic awards and was chosen for the Math Olympiad earlier this year.
Of her support system, she said, “I cannot express my gratitude enough.”
Making a way
Faith is one of a steadily growing number of black women now entering the field of oceanography. She counts herself as fortunate to have ‘fallen into’ the field.
Yes, she enjoyed the beach as a child and liked playing in the water, but oceanography didn’t register on her radar at all during her formative years, she said.
And it was another support system that made it possible: the UCT oceanography team and its focus on transformation and inclusivity. The latter is the word she prefers to use for its all-encompassing human criteria.
Writing her thesis acknowledgements, Faith said, “When I resigned my lucrative job to become a full-time PhD student, it inevitably came with financial challenges. I am grateful to Katye [Altieri] who immediately stepped in with a grant holder bursary funds to alleviate the financial strain.
“Later on, the Advancing Womxn Postgraduate Fellowship in Oceanography and Atmospheric Sciences followed but did more than just help with the finances. The OceanWomxn group (Kolisa, Thando, Ruru, Wanjiru, Philile, and Lerato) became a source of strength during the difficult COVID-19 pandemic and served as motivation to also reach out to other struggling women through Project Kuongoza.
“A special word of thanks also to the Fawcett/Altieri Research Group that made the battling through the research bearable by listening to my presentations and also offering advice where and when needed.”
She added, “It’s of the utmost importance to have programmes like Womxn4Womxn and Ocean Womxn.”
Faith would like to see it continued beyond its five-year term, so that others like her can benefit, particularly as the numbers of black women oceanographers, once a rarity, are growing.
She also feels lucky to have to been appointed as a mentor for the Kuongoza project, where she was assigned to mentor women from all over Africa and within different research fields.
“To me that was a huge opportunity and privilege.”
Graduation will be a family affair and Faith has invited the two men in her life, Stanley and her 86-year-old father, Abraham October, to attend the ceremony.
It will be an emotional experience; her father has attended every one of her graduation ceremonies.
“My mom has passed on, so it’s a huge, huge privilege for me to still have my dad here.”
The larger family in Gqeberha are also delighted by her achievement.
“If I had to have a contingent [at grad] rooting for me, I think they would all be there!”
She is also happy to be seen as a role model for her family and others in the community where she grew up.
Here they may already know her as the Super Scientist “Aerosolve”. Super Scientists is a South African non-profit CodeMakers project to inspire young people and help them see themselves in the faces and life stories of scientists working today – scientists such as Faith February.
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