Find what fuels your passion

Are you brave enough to reach for the stars?

My full name is Sinenhlanhla Precious Sikhosana, born in Harding south coast of KwaZulu-Natal. My family consists of my grandmother, mother, three siblings, and many cousins. My inquisitive mind and passion for problem-solving led me to the science field at a very young age. However, it was only in my matric year (when I attended the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU) career week at UKZN) that I was exposed to career opportunities in astrophysics. Postgraduate students passionately shared their research and how they go about solving the mysteries of the universe; I was instantly sold.

Astro-Lady
Astro-lady

I am currently studying towards a PhD in Applied Mathematics with a research focus in Astrophysics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. My research involves understanding high-energy particle physics on the largest gravitationally bound objects in the universe (galaxy clusters).

My academic journey, like any other, has been filled with a lot of obstacles but also equally numerous triumphs. In my undergraduate years, I obtained the SKA Africa (South African Radio Astronomy Observatory) scholarship and the top 10 African females award at the college for 3 years. I have also received numerous awards in my postgrad, with the 2019 highlights being; receiving the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women In Science research grant and attending the 69th Nobel Laureate Meeting at Lindau.

With all these achievements one would think I would be very confident in my abilities, but that was not the case. Due to the unfamiliar surroundings and lack of representations, I suffered from the ‘imposter syndrome’, the feeling of not belonging. I had to fight hard mentally to convince myself that yes, I am intelligent enough and I belong. The advantage is that now I get to pave the way for younger aspiring female scientist, to make their journey less uphill than mine was.

Now that the formalities are out of the way, let me let you in on what fuels my passion. I believe that without educational knowledge one can never experience true liberation. It is because of this belief that I spend most of my time outside of academia participating in educational outreach programmes. I mainly give talks at high schools and career exhibitions. I do this to encourage students to pursue tertiary studies and to also make them aware that science no longer has the face it used to have centuries ago. One does not need to be a male with crazy hair and a lab coat to do science. When I do get the opportunity to speak to young girls, I make it a point to be as feminine and bubbly as I can be (be myself basically), because I want to show them that science is for them and that science is fun and trendy too!

OutreachWhen I finally attain that ‘Dr’ tittle, I would like to establish a mentorship programme that guides young girls that are science enthusiasts. I have also personally encountered that no matter how brilliant your science is unless communicated effectively, it will never make a great impact. This led me to the idea of technical science writing retreats for postgrad students; it is a dream I intend to fulfil in the near future.

Giving back to our communities

The same way we find and feel that mentors are important to us just like Munira discussed in her August blog, I believe that we should do the same for others. Like I also mentioned in my August blog about the importance of finding a support system that will motivate and support us, I also said that after we have found that support system, we should go out there and be someone else’s support system.

I didn’t realize how much of a difference I could make to young kids’ lives until this year when I was more involved in community work. All the previous years I always dedicated some of my time to volunteer work in terms of mentorship programs or open days for high school learners but none of these ever required me to interact with these learners after that one event. This year I made a conscious decision to participate in the efforts of Nka’Thuto EduPropeller, and was actively involved in some of their expos.

Nkathutho

Nka’Thuto is a non-profit organization that was established in 2016 with the objective to spark interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers amongst learners. There is a 7 tier process that is followed that the learners are involved in, the first process is the Activation stage. During this stage, the organization goes to various schools and encourage learners to find problems in their communities. The second process in the programme is the workshop stage. This stage teaches the learners about how to go about conducting research and finding solutions to the problems they have identified in their community. The third is the consultation stage, the learners are giving an opportunity to consult with mentors about their ideas. Thereafter, the internal school level Innovation Expo happens where learners compete amongst their peers. A computer skills workshop is also offered to the learners. The winners of the school level expo then compete in the final innovation expo with other learners from different schools and provinces. The winners from the final expo then proceed to the Entrepreneurship expo pitching competition.

I was involved in the internal school level and the final innovation expos. The feeling that comes with being part of such initiatives is beyond satisfying. Getting the opportunity to interact with the learners, not only about their science projects but also their future plans are just remarkable. Leading up to the final expo round, they invited me to a mentorship session to help the learners prepare for the finals. I was happy to see a whole lot of familiar faces from the previous expos. I was especially ecstatic to have two learners who insisted on having a consultation with me since I was their judge during their school level expo. They were happy to show me that they have implemented my suggestions and wanted to know if there was more I could suggest from what they have done. On the day of the final expo, I made it a point of mine to go have a look at their board and I was truly impressed with the effort they made in improving from their last expo. This was clearly an indication that they were there to learn.

What I am trying to say is that I really believe it is important that us as postgraduate students should be the mentors that we would like for ourselves. The same way we would like mentors to guide and support us, we should also pass this on to others younger than us. Not everyone has the opportunity to meet people who are in the same career path they would like to follow. Take me for example, I did not know that one can have a career in Physics when I was still in High School. So now I make it a point to let the younger learners know that it is possible to have a career apart from the typical careers that they are aware of. During the expo sessions I judged in, I asked most of them what they wanted to do when they finished school. It was interesting because I got a variety of answers ranging from software engineering to being doctors. What gave them hope was that I would even tell them that I knew a couple of people who were in the same career field as their interests.

Nkathutho1

We have a whole generation of young people who are smart that just need mentors to guide them in the right direction. We are part of this generation that needs mentors but let us not forget those younger than us.  We are the mentors that they need, want and should have. We should give more of our time to encourage, motivate and mentor these learners. Let us be their role models, someone for them to look up to and aspire to become.

I am not saying that everyone should start a foundation or organization that helps learners from our communities, from what I have heard, it’s a lot of work. What I am however saying is that if you do come across a foundation or organization that is looking for volunteers, volunteer your time. There is more to giving back to the community than volunteering at a soup kitchen or visiting old age homes and orphanages. Sometimes sharing our knowledge and skills can go a long way in making a difference in someone else’s life. The learners are really looking for someone to inspire and give them hope, be that light at the end of their High School tunnel.