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Celebrating Women In Research: UWC’s Fantastic Females Driving The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Author: Melanie Snyders & Nicklaus Kruger

As Women’s Month comes to a close, two of the University of the Western Cape’s leading woman researchers, Prof Mmaki Jantjies and Prof Priscilla Baker, discuss their work, their hopes, and the importance of women to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

(Published - 28 August 2020)

“The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.” It’s been nearly two decades since sci-fi author and celebrated futurist William Gibson said this - and his words have only become more true, as we find ourselves in the midst of a Fourth Industrial Revolution that is rapidly changing the way we work, socialise, learn and more.

“South Africa is seen as a mobile-first country, where millions of people access information from across the world through small hand-held devices,” said Professor Mmaki Jantjies, associate professor in Information Systems at the University of the Western Cape. “But we have a bit of a two-tier system when it comes to digital access. The haves are able to access digital platforms and acquire digital skills and reap all the benefits that actually come with technology. But then we have the have nots: the reality of many young South Africans, particularly in rural areas and the urban townships, passing through an education system where digital skills and access to digital resources are more scarce.”

Prof Jantjies has a passion for promoting STEM subjects in developing nations and disadvantaged communities - a passion she conveyed during a webinar on Celebrating UWC’s Women In Research, hosted by UWC’s Research Office, under the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, Professor Jose Frantz. 

The webinar addressed the unequal distribution of the fourth Industrial Revolution with respect to women.

“Female representation in the field of science and technology is low,” Prof Frantz noted. “Studies have repeatedly reported that maths and science are perceived as male domains, and scientists are seen as predominantly male. And the technological transition of the 4IR has been criticised for the negative impact it could have on workers, who could increasingly be replaced by these technologies - with women expected to be more disproportionately affected than men.”

The impact of the gender-science stereotype on students' interest in STEM subjects and their aspirations to pursue a career in STEM fields has been addressed from different perspectives. Literature has highlighted a lack of role models as one reason why women do not pursue these careers.

“The Division For Postgraduate Studies and our International Relations Office recently hosted a webinar titled, Promoting gender equity and reducing gender discrimination in and through higher education, highlighting some of the challenges we continue to fight in the higher education sector,” Prof Frantz said. “But we also have some success stories - stories that can uplift and give courage to other women as academics and students. And it’s important for us to share them.”  

Prof Jantjies coordinates the Mozilla and UN Women technology clubs for young children – creating safe spaces for high school girls and boys to learn ICT and leadership skills. She’s even involved in a project to use immersive technology to support STEM learning more effectively, especially for Xhosa-speaking students.

“4IR is a global reality, and one that will impact all of us - so in growing the next generation of people who can contribute to society with the skills that they require, we need to focus on Basic Education,” Prof Jantjies said. “That’s why we work with teachers, to see how we can integrate technology and techniques that promote and work with the basic principles of education, and are in line with the classroom context and daily teaching and learning experience. Teachers are the backbone of the education system: you teach a teacher you teach a whole generation.”

Her fellow webinar speaker, Professor Priscilla Baker of UWC’s Department of Chemistry, emphasised the importance of that kind of engagement in designing efficient systems.

Chemistry, like life, happens where there is contact,” she said. “Physical, electrostatic, etc., engaged contact. In Chemistry, higher surface area is related to greater opportunity for chemical reactivity, and this is the main drive behind nanostructured materials design for improved technology. Obtaining the desired outcome for chemical reactivity also requires understanding of the analytical context, skill in data acquisition and informed data analysis.

A recipient of the prestigious Women In Science Award, Prof Baker is SARChI Chair in Analytical Systems and Processes for Priority and Emerging Contaminants, and co-head of UWC’s SensorLab (alongside fellow SARChI Chair Emmanuel Iwuoha), researching and designing sensors like those in our phones, or the temperature guns we’ve become all too familiar with. She specialises in the application of frequency-modulated electrochemical techniques that can be applied in water analysis and treatment, bio and industrial catalysis, as well as in energy-related applications.

“I want to say to the young ladies who will be the next generation of STEM champions: don't forget where you come from,” Prof Baker concluded. “Because that helped shape the person that you are today, and will shape the leaders you become. And it’s those experiences that will guide how we shape the future - and make our research count.”

“We need to make research count, by looking back and by looking forward,” Prof Frantz concluded. “Respice, Prospice - it’s more than just a motto.”

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