Her studies had started brimful of promise more than a decade earlier, at the University of Zululand (UniZulu) in 2004. Aged just 16 at the time, Senamile was a member of a royal family – she herself is a princess – in KwaZulu-Natal and was following in the footsteps of many of her relatives – siblings from her father’s three polygamous marriages included – who had gone on to university studies. However, out from under the strict and watchful eye of parents for the first time in her life, her studies floundered and she fell pregnant. “I was like, wow, finally I have my freedom,” she recalls, “but I made a lot of mistakes.”
Senamile would, however, get her life back on track and complete her studies in 2007. She worked briefly as a teacher, in keeping with someone from a family of educators and education administrators. But it wasn’t the life of a scientist that she had, as a child in rural Nongoma, imagined for herself when she had been fascinated with the idea of becoming an astronaut.
“I wanted to do something different and didn’t want to follow the teaching route,” she says. “I’ve always been that kind of a person – when everyone else goes left, I go right.”
She would “go right” a few years later, landing a job as a project engineer. On top of that, she launched the Senamile Masango Foundation in 2014, which aims to empower women in South Africa and Africa. It offers programmes for school pupils and professionals to increase the scientific productivity and efficiency of women scientists in the Third World and to strengthen the research efforts of, and training opportunities for, young women scientists and engineers.
In 2016, tragedy forced an even more dramatic change in Senamile’s own life when her seven-year-old daughter, Sindisiwe, was struck and killed by a car while walking back home from school. To cope with the loss, Senamile relocated to Cape Town and started her honours studies, as a University of Zululand student, in a joint programme in nuclear science presented by UWC’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. She completed her honours and registered for the Master’s in Accelerator and Nuclear Science (MANUS) as a fully-fledged UWC student.
In April this year, she graduated with distinction for her study in which she investigated the shape of one of the most abundant nuclei in the solar system, 20NE, which doesn’t behave when excited – i.e. when energy is applied to it – as nuclear physics models predict it should.
The research is not just of cosmetic interest; how atoms and their nuclei behave under pressure or in a state of excitement could help explain how carbon – which gives rise to biological life – was formed at the core of giant stars.
Along the way, Senamile became a scientific pioneer. She was one of the nine postgraduate students from UWC and UniZulu who accompanied UWC’s Professor Nico Orce to the CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) laboratories in Switzerland in mid-2017. These facilities house some of the world’s most powerful accelerators in which, every day, scientists from around the globe smash particles into each other to observe the collisions from which new particles are formed. In this, the first CERN experiment led by scientists from Africa, the team investigated the relationship between shape and energy in the isotope known as selenium 70, working in the Isolde accelerator at CERN's Isolde facility.
“I was overwhelmed,” says Senamile of the experience. Not scared off, though. In 2018, she returned to CERN to present a paper.
These opportunities, acknowledges Senamile (now 32), could only have come her way at UWC. The University’s growing reputation as a leading research institution in South Africa, and the establishment of the astronomy unit at UWC, provided her with the platform to pursue her childhood interests, she says.
“It was tough here in the beginning – I hadn’t studied for like five years and I came here into an intense honours programme and had to learn new things. But I had friends I could rely on. It was a very supportive environment, and I liked the way they teach here.”
UWC has become Senamile’s new home – she has now started on her doctoral studies, continuing with the research she began in her master’s. A third trip to Switzerland may be on the cards.
“I think before our first experiment at CERN, it was harder for us to get in and conduct experiments there,” says Senamile. “But now we’re recognised, and we have the credibility. I think further opportunities will open up and present themselves.”