Mentors Matter

A factor that had the biggest impact on making my journey as a woman in a male-dominated field easier was the luck of having good mentors and role models. I have been fortunate in finding women who I could relate to and who believed in me, which helped me get through tough times and helped my career progress so far.

There is an important difference between a mentor and a role model. A mentor is someone who knows you personally, advocates for you and supports you in a professional capacity. A mentor can be your supervisor, but may even be someone completely outside your narrow field of study. Whereas a role model is someone you may not know personally, but you can relate to in terms of their journey and their values. They often represent something you would like to replicate in your own life or career. Finding mentors and role models can be quite challenging, but the search pays off in many different ways.

Although many postgraduate programmes and universities run mentorship programmes, I have found my mentors informally like most South African students. As an undergrad, I would often ask questions in class and speak to my lecturers and tutors afterwards. This helped me form a relationship with the academics and postgrad students, which made it easier to seek out advice from them when I needed it. If I am struggling with something, I know there are several people who want me to succeed and would be willing to help me – whether it is directing me to resources on writing a good application letter, listening to me vent about a difficult course, or helping me find an internship.

A good mentor will help you progress as a scientist. By sharing their knowledge and experience, they can improve your skills and help you grow as a researcher and as a person. You should also be willing to take their criticism – which should always be constructive – and approach them with respect and eagerness! 

I would like to emphasise that although there are advantages to having a mentor who shares part of your identities, such as your gender, race or religion, for example, a good mentor does not have to be someone who resembles you. As I was working on this post, I attended the UCT Vice Chancellor’s Postgraduate Brunch. During her talk, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng also mentioned the importance of having a mentor. She shared her definition of a good mentor, as someone who is “‘highly achieved and generous with their knowledge”. To me, these are some of the most important characteristics of a good mentor as well – someone who cares about your progress and can help you grow as an academic. 

In rWhatsApp Image 2019-08-22 at 10.07.25ole models, however, it is more important to have people who you can identify with. When I started studying astrophysics, I didn’t know of any other Muslim women in my field. Like many sciences, astronomers also wanted to stay as far away from anything political as they could, which felt isolating as someone who cares about social justice. It was comforting to me when I stumbled across a blog post about Naziyah Mahmood – a Muslim aerospace engineer who advocates for women in STEM, and seeing Professor Chanda Prescond-Weinstein openly discuss politics, share advice on surviving academia as a woman of colour and – most importantly – happily talk about her work on axions on twitter has been incredibly valuable to my experience as a scientist. 

Up until recently, most portrayals of scientists have focused on white men in lab coats, but fortunately, there has been a shift in popular culture to diversify this image. With movies like Hidden Figures and even seeing women as scientists in the cartoons my 3-year-old niece watches, it’s reassuring to know that, in the future, girls will easily be able to see themselves as scientists.

I hope that this post will inspire you to seek out new mentors and look out for role models. Who inspires you to be a better scientist?

How I found my sisters in Science.

Growing up in a family with three older brothers, a whole bunch of male cousins and no sisters; I have always had problems with communicating with females. It came as no shock to me when I found myself in a male-dominated field such as Physics. Over the years I have accumulated close female friends that can only be counted with one hand. This blog post is not about all my failed friendships with females but rather about my experience with a special group of ladies I survived a year with (which is a big deal for me).

In April I came across a link on Twitter of an article titled “Want black women students to stay in STEM? Help them find role models who look like them” published in Science Daily. This article made me reflect on all my attempts to always find a group of people I can relate to. I mean I get along very well with males but at the end of the day, I would always question why I am never part of that group of girls having fun at the library lawns or at the club wearing matching outfits. The few female friends I have are all not part of the STEM field and while they are there for me during my ups and downs in this postgraduate journey, I feel like something is still missing. We have very few women in Physics in South Africa, let alone the world so trying to find a role model who looks like me is a big reach. So the next best thing is to find other postgraduate students who are in the STEM field like me.

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Long story short, last year in February I came across a Twitter post from Black Women in Science (BWIS) appealing to black females in the STEM field to apply to become members. Like all other things in my life, I took the chance and applied to be a member. To my surprise, I got accepted as one of the few Johannesburg fellows that were accepted to be part of the programme. So let me tell you about who and what BWIS is, well BWIS is a registered NPC which aims to deliver capacity development interventions that target young black women scientists and researchers. The purpose of BWIS is to develop professional research and science conduct, leadership and mentorship skills for women within all scientific disciplines, in tertiary intuitions and professional environments nationally and internationally. They promote a postgraduate culture amongst African students and improve their academic experience by providing support, training, a professional network and exposure to opportunities.

As mentioned above, they focus on all scientific disciplines and the first time I finally got to meet all the other BWIS fellows, I wondered to myself how many of them could possibly help me if I am the only person doing Physics. Little did I know what an amazing experience this would turn in to. The programme consisted of three workshops that focused on Scientific Writing Skills, Business Skills and Development and the third workshop gave us time to work and present our Sustainability Projects where we could either work in groups on individuals. I was fortunate enough to find myself in a group with seven incredible ladies where we worked on a project focusing on recycling.

The cherry on top of this whole experience would have to be the Gala dinner we had in April this year. All the ladies got to dress up and everyone look absolutely stunning. I had never been in a room full of beautiful ladies in my entire life. Prizes were given, food was eaten and conversations were shared. Our group even won the “Best Pitch Award”, which was completely unexpected if you ask me. The year I spent as part of the BWIS fellow has been insightful and memorable. I got the opportunity to meet amazing people in STEM and we have all gotten to share our journeys as postgraduates and working professionals.  I am now a BWIS alumnus and part of their mentorship programme. I am very grateful to the BWIS team for taking the risk and choosing me to be one of their fellows because I have found my sisters in science.

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The purpose of this post was to basically share the importance of finding people who you can relate with. Not necessarily on a social platform but on a more “professional” platform. Whether it be “Women in Science”, “Women in Engineering” or even organizations/forums that are within your field. As long as you find a place where you belong and can be uplifted in your career. I read somewhere about the “Power of the Pack: Women who support women are more successful.” After you have found your happy place, go out there and be someone else’s happy place by mentoring our young girls to join the STEM field because everyone keeps asking: Why aren’t there more women in science?