Priscilla Baker, Distinguished Woman Scientist
“Nobody gives you opportunities; they present themselves to you. And it's up to you to see them and to seize them, no matter what other people may say – you can achieve what you believe.”
Those are the words of the University of the Western Cape's Professor Priscilla Baker, co-leader (along with founder Prof Emmanuel Iwuoha) of the electrochemistry research group, SensorLab. It's a credo that's helped her achieve quite a bit, as evidenced by her receiving the Distinguished Woman Scientist (Natural Sciences and Engineering) Award at the annual Department of Science and Techonology's (DST) Women in Science Awards (WISA) ceremony held in Johannesburg on Friday, 15 August 2014.
DST hosts the Women in Science Awards to reward outstanding female scientists and researchers, and encourage younger women to follow in their footsteps – something that, until recently, wasn't really possible, given socioeconomic disenfranchisement and cultural attitudes.
An NRF C2-rated scientist, Prof Baker is a Professor of Chemistry at UWC. SensorLab focuses on fundamental and applied electrodynamics of materials and sensors. Prof Baker 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.
She's published 65 research articles in international and national journals, written eight book chapters, collaborated with researchers in US, Germany and France, participated in international teaching and training programmes at Universities in France, Portugal and the UK, and is an active member of two research consortia funded by the Seventh Framework Programme of the European Union.
But her favourite part of her job isn't about the big, important research (though that is good). “What I really love about my work is the people interface,” she explains. “Developing human potential - seeing students grow from not believing they can do it to seriously achieving, seeing them master new skills and endure the discipline of post-graduate training, that's what really gets me excited. Every year of teaching is different, and so is every student.”
Prof Baker has supervised and graduated 21 masters and 16 PhD students over the years, and is currently supervising two more MSc and five more PhD candidates. But like all staff at SensorLab, she teaches classes from first year all the way through to post-grad, a practice that helps staff learn to engage students more effectively. “That way, by the time they get to post-grad, we know them well. We've guided them in matters outside of the university, even, and we can help them get where they want to be.”
This is especially important for UWC, where many students may not have had distinguished high school careers (“not all high schools are equal”) and some students may come from less privileged backgrounds.
Prof Baker obtained her BSc at the University of Cape Town as the first class to major in Ocean and Atmospheric Science – the only black female in her class. She then completed her National Diploma in Analytical Chemistry, first class, at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Drawn into the domain of electrochemistry research during her National Diploma internship – studying under thementorship of Prof AM Crouch – she graduated with BSc Honours (Chemistry) and successfully completed her MSc dissertation (Chemistry) on the evaluation of trace metals in the atmosphere, as a CSIR bursary holder, whilst registered at University of the Western Cape. In 2004 she received her PhD (Chemistry) in the area of novel metal tinoxide composites as anodes for phenol degradation, at the University of Stellenbosch.
In November 2003, she became the first full-time female staff member in the Chemistry Department at UWC – she received her 10 year anniversary certificate last year.
“It's a point of reflection,” she notes, “a time to look back and think about what you've contributed. And I'm happy with what I’ve been able to do, and happy with the changes I've seen the Department go through – like moving into the New Chemistry Building.”
One thing that made winning the WISA award especially significant was the timing. “It's wonderful that the accolade came while Prof Brian O'Connell is still in leadership,” says Prof Baker. “He believes in UWC more than anyone I've ever met – and he can make you believe in it, too.”
But it's more than just the Vice-Chancellor that makes UWC such a great environment. “When I look at the University management, and at my colleagues, at how hard they work researching, teaching, helping students, it makes me proud. I'm blessed to have colleagues like these. This is really an accolade for the University as a whole – it shows we can compete with the best.”