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3 August 2018
UWC's #Inspiring50: UWC Women Use STEM To Help Community

(Published - 3 August 2018)

Inspiring Fifty is a global initiative that’s aimed at shining a spotlight on leading and inspirational women working in the technology sector - women who change the world with their STEM skills, and serve as role models for other women in the industry.

And in South Africa, 2018’s #Inspiring Fifty SA span from astrophysicists to venture capitalists, from students to captains of industry - and include three amazing women from the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

These groundbreaking women will not only be recognised in South Africa, but will form part of a global network of women.

Inspiring Fifty co-founder Janneke Niessen says that the initiative is based on the philosophy, “if she sees it, she can be it”.

“We are excited about all these women who have been given the opportunity to create awareness of their roles in the technology and innovation sectors, and encourage more women to join the force,” Niessen says.

To meet the criteria, each of the 276 nominees had to be a founder of a technology company; or hold a C-Level (senior executive) position in a technology company; or be an influencer, academic or politician in the technology or innovation space.

So, which of UWC’s tech women made the list this time around?

Fanelwa Ngece Ajayi: Founder at AmaQawe Ngemfundo

Dr Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi is a senior lecturer in Physical Chemistry in UWC’s Chemistry Department, and a research leader in the field of drug metabolism nanobiosensors for antiretrovirals and tuberculosis treatment drugs. She is also a UWC alum (Class of 2011).

Additionally, she’s the founder and a leader of AmaQawe ngeMfundo, a non-profit foundation which aims to promote and enrich STEM by providing assistance with academic resources and infrastructure at schools in marginalised communities. They also aim to inspire young people from these communities to study and pursue STEM careers.

"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, and I’d like to change that, ”Dr Ngece-Ajayi says.

AmaQawe ngeMfundo strives to provide these schools with STEM laboratories, as well as fun and interactive workshops, experiments and seminars geared at promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“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.”

Dr Imogen Wright: Chief Technology Officer at Hyrax Biosciences

Imogen Wright is on a mission: to help provide better - and more targeted - diagnostics for diseases affecting low-resource settings. How? By developing cutting-edge user-friendly software solutions that analyse DNA sequences with unrivaled accuracy, reducing complex sequencing data to simple, clear clinical reports.

As co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Hyrax Biosciences, she’s responsible for their novel, highly accurate mutation-calling algorithm - an algorithm that was developed during her PhD at UWC’s South African National Bioinformatics Institute (Class of 2014), and which is at the heart of Exatype, a software solution that enables healthcare workers to determine HIV-positive patients’ responsiveness to ARV drug treatment.

Drug resistance testing is a critical step in the selection of an appropriate treatment regimen, improving patient health and preventing treatment failure. However, traditional drug resistance testing methods are too expensive for routine use in resource-constrained settings.

Exatype has the potential to contribute towards the effective management of HIV/AIDS in Africa – where 70% of people living with HIV/AIDS reside - and also holds promise in helping detect drug resistance for other diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and antimicrobial resistance. It also earned Imogen a prestigious Innovation Prize for Africa runner-up award.

Palesa Nombula: Commercialisation Young Professional and MSc Astrophysics Student

Palesa Nombula is a dynamic young lady who has her eyes set on the skies, pursuing a career in astrophysics.

“I am always looking out for cool stuff to learn and try out, and trying to find efficient and optimal solutions to problems” she says. “This goes from cooking to physical training - and astrophysics gives me a lot of problems to solve. It’s a fascinating subject.”

Palesa earned her BSc in Physics and Mathematics from UNISA, before earning her BSc(Hons) in Astrophysics and Space Science from the University of Cape Town. Then it was off to UWC, where she is currently working on her MSc with the UWC Astrophysics Group, under the supervision of Prof Mario Santos, Director of the Centre for RadioCosmology. Her research project is Cleaning the HI intensity mapping signal with Machine Learning techniques. This project is aimed at finding optimal methods of foreground cleaning HI maps taken by the MeerKAT telescope, which is a precursor of the SKA.

Earlier this year, she joined the Young Professionals Development programme for talented science and engineering graduates at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) as a Commercialisation Officer. There she helps to transform the software and technology used in SARAO into a viable product, and is also helping to implement development projects in Carnavon and other towns in the Karoo.

Celebrating Women In STEM

Dr Mmaki Jantjies, from the Department of Information Systems - a judge for this year’s awards, and herself one of last year’s inaugural Inspiring Fifty SA - is proud to have been able to witness the work of all the entrants.

“I’m proud - and inspired - to have been given the chance to see some of the great work these impressive women are doing,” she says. “Diversifying the field of technology only means increasing possible innovations and solutions to meet our world’s challenges. The more women we have in these kinds of careers, the better for all of us.”

Dr Jantjies isn’t the only one impressed by the #Inspiring50SA.

"These fifty women will go on to inspire and encourage both young girls and boys in this country, and to showcase the opportunities that they may not have realised were available to them. It is an exciting time for women in STEM in South Africa," says Netherlands consul general Bonnie Horbach. "And I hope in 50 years to come we celebrate this campaign as a relic of the past - because women will have attained the kind of equality and respect that makes recognition organic."

Want to know more about the Inspiring Fifty SA 2018? Think you know someone who may be perfect for next year’s list? Find out more here.