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Mentorship Programme Empowers Women in Science

Author: Myolisi Gophe

University of the Western Cape (UWC) senior lecturer Dr Michelle Lochner has been running a successful mentorship programme to assist women students in developing countries to realise their potential.

(Published - 21 August 2020)

As a little girl, Dr Michelle Lochner loved the stars. When she heard about the Square Kilometre Array, she realised that she could get paid for studying stars, sparking an interest to pursue a successful and still growing career in physics.

As much as she is grateful for her career growth, she is more excited about making an impact on the so-called “leaky pipeline” – a phenomenon where disproportionately more women leave the field at each career stage than men. She established the Supernova Foundation, a programme designed to inspire and support young women through virtual mentoring who hope to pursue careers in physics.

“Mentoring can help alleviate the feelings of isolation and lack of confidence that can sometimes cause women to leave the field, although of course, it cannot solve all gender equality issues,” Dr Lochner, a senior lecturer at UWC, explained. “My ultimate dream is to extend the Supernova Foundation beyond just physics, incorporating all STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, and including both academia and industry, to create a massive network of women supporting each other in these under-represented fields.”

Several years ago, her colleague, Professor Bruce Bassett, asked for help to encourage women students from Mauritius to pursue postgraduate studies in South Africa. “He thought mentorship from senior women might help. I set up a small group of about seven women, and we started mentoring some Mauritian astronomy students via virtual meetings. I quickly realised that this idea had much bigger potential. I shut down the pilot programme and launched the Supernova Foundation internationally in 2017.”

Since its inception, the Foundation has been connecting undergraduate and postgraduate students with senior, internationally established women role models to help bridge the severe gender gap in postgraduate physics. The programme grew to around 50 mentors and 100 mentees, representing every continent. “We recently reopened applications and have doubled in number in less than two weeks, with more applicants pouring in every day,” Dr Lochner added. 

While the numbers are encouraging, Dr Lochner said her greatest achievements are when mentees speak about the impact the programme has had on their lives. “My mentees tell me how much the support from a senior woman has helped them, particularly in building their confidence and helping them stay positive about pursuing careers in science. I’ve found incredible joy in watching my mentees grow and develop into confident young scientists ready to take on the world.”

Dr Lochner completed her undergraduate studies in physics, mathematics and computer science at Rhodes University before moving to Cape Town to do her Honours with the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP) at the University of Cape Town, where she also did her PhD. She then moved to University College London for a two-year postdoc before returning to South Africa in 2016 to take up a joint resident researcher position between the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO - formally SKA South Africa).

This year she joined UWC as a senior lecturer, still joint with SARAO. “My focus is on cosmology and trying to get the best out of combining optical and radio telescopes like the Rubin Observatory and the SKA,” she explained. “I spend most of my time developing new statistical techniques and using machine learning to tackle the masses of data we are dealing with in Astronomy. I particularly enjoy working on the difficult problem of anomaly detection - how to make new scientific discoveries in the era of petabytes of data.”

For more information on the programme you can visit their website: www.supernova, and the application forms for new mentors and mentees are here:


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