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26 October 2018
SAYAS Young Scientist Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi: Science To Save Society and Change Communities

(Published - 26 October 2018)

For Dr Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi, her recent nomination to the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS) isn’t just a great honour (which it is); it’s also an opportunity to further explore her passion for community engagement and promoting STEM education.

“Being a member of SAYAS is such an honour - and not just for me personally, but for anyone else who may be inspired by it,” she says. “These forms of recognitions show fellow young scientists - and especially students - that hard work pays off, and also illustrates the importance of science in today's world.”

Dr Ngece-Ajayi is a senior lecturer in Physical Chemistry at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and research leader in the field of drug metabolism nanobiosensors for antiretrovirals and Tuberculosis treatment drugs...and is also the founder and leader of the non-profit organisation, AmaQawe ngeMfundo, which aims to change the negative stereotypes about STEM at township schools.

"The Faculty of Natural Sciences is very proud of Dr Ajayi's successful nomination to membership of the prestigious Academy of Science of South Africa this early in her career,” says Professor Michael Davies-Coleman, Dean of UWC’s Faculty of Natural Sciences - who was himself recently elected to SAYAS’ older brother, the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) .

“The Academy was constituted in 2002 with a stated mission to actively ensure science benefits society - and Dr Ajayi embodies that idea. She is a true activist for the public understanding of science in the poorest communities of Cape Town and her nomination is richly deserved."

AmaQawe ngeMfundo aims to provide makeshift STEM labs, on-site experiments and interactive STEM workshops, and STEM fairs at schools in marginalised communities. Dr Ngece-Ajayi and her team of volunteers - who are primarily UWC students - understand that applying to a university to further your education is not a given for people living in township communities like Khayelitsha in Cape Town (where she comes from).

Here’s what Dr Ngece-Ajayi has to say about SAYAS, science and society...

What does the SAYAS nomination mean to you?

I feel extremely honoured naturally - but I am also very excited at the opportunities SAYAS will provide: being a member of this prestigious group will allow me to further explore my passion of community engagement geared at the promotion of STEM education.

Hopefully this recognition will also motivate young scientists to steer their research activities to be more community-aligned. Community engagement is essential in order for scientists to learn to communicate with the public at large so that their work can be understood better. This is key because by doing this, interest builds towards STEM fields.

What would you like for non-scientists to know about STEM?

Firstly, one thing most people don’t know: that science is fun, even though scientists may seem serious at times.

Additionally, I would like them to know that the world of science is dedicated to the improvement of all life on Earth - which is why more scientists are needed to produce and test more ideas, and to improve on existing findings.

What convinced you to start AmaQawe ngeMfundo?

Lecturing at UWC showed me that students from the townships and rural-based schools struggle financially, and sometimes quit their studies due to a lack of proper foundation in science and a lack of exposure in the field. To me the most disheartening thing is to see bright kids from my area pass matric and sit at home aimlessly. I decided I’d like to change that.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your community engagement initiatives?

With enough willpower any child can succeed, no matter their living conditions and background. These factors never define you, or are limiting factors when it comes to a child's potential. My advice is to build hope and to have a plan.

Any messages for young scientists who want to become SAYAS or ASSAf members themselves someday?

First of all, my respect and sincere gratitude goes out to every South African who has or is currently dedicating their lives to science - it is their hard work that continues to improve the lives of fellow South Africans, and the quality of science in general.

The best advice I would give to these young scientists is to seek out - and pay attention to - mentors. The best mentors are those that respect and support their mentees’ passions and decisions, and who always look out for their mentees’ interests (my own SAYAS nomination was from a mentor who believes in my work and my passion).

What’s next for AmaQawe ngeMfundo?

So far we’re proud of what we’ve achieved: It is rewarding to see the positive effect the workshops have on pupils and how they influence them to eventually choose science as a future career.

But there’s more to be done. In future, I’m excited about seeing these youngsters interested in issues in their communities, such as improving the quality of water and finding novel means to identify impurities in water and soil.

Ultimately, I’d like to see more scientists, engineers and doctors. These are exactly the kinds of skills that this country - and this continent, and the rest of the world - really needs.