Don’t have one yet? Here’s how I found my dream…

Unlike many people who know their future careers by the time they complete their matric year (or even before), I was unfortunately not one of those people. There are many of us out there who apply to go to varsity but are not quite sure about what career path we want to follow. I am Joyful Elma Mdhluli, an aspiring Nuclear Solid-Sate Physicist and academic with a Master’s degree in Nuclear Solid-State Physics. This is my story of how I found myself enrolled as a PhD student in Physics at the University of the Witwatersrand today, although if you asked me a few years ago, I had a completely different destination in mind.

When I was in high school, I was certain that I wanted to become an engineer but that dream was short-lived when I had to apply for University. The reality of my marks did not entertain that aspiration. I found myself applying for a double degree in Nuclear Physics with Mechanical engineering, where I would first need to complete a BSc in Nuclear Physics before moving to engineering studies. At that time, this seemed like the best option to get me to my engineering dream. To cut the long story short, I matriculated with a few distinctions and got accepted to Wits.

hell to heaven photo
Road from Hell to Heaven (Flickr

I still remember the day I enrolled for a general BSc like it was yesterday. I found myself sitting at the Head of School of Physics office trying to enrol for the Nuclear Physics course when he convinced me that a general BSc majoring in Physics would be a better option for me. Being the scared (and definitely not as well informed) little girl, all I wanted was to register in the university and start my academic journey. I followed his advice and enrolled for a general BSc. Now I will not lie and say that the undergraduate programme was a walk in the park; I went from getting straight A’s in Maths in high school to barely passing the monster course called Maths Major. However, not everything in my life was like a scene from a horror movie, Physics Major seemed to be like a Romantic comedy. Like all romantic movies, in the beginning, I loathed Physics but over the undergraduate years, I came to fall in love with it completely.

After completing my undergraduate degree in record time (still not quite sure how that happened), I enrolled for an Honours course majoring in Physics. I thought that the three years of undergrad was hell until I started with Honours, the three years of undergrad does not prepare you for the flames that you will encounter in Honours. After surviving that one year of hell on earth, I enrolled for a Master’s degree in Physics after one of the professors in the School of Physics asked me to join their team. After four years of torture, I had finally made it to heaven. I didn’t have to attend lectures, wake up early in the morning and study for tests and exams.

My first eight months of Masters were the best months of my life since I started school but the highlight of my first year had to be my first time in an aeroplane, and not only that but all the way to Europe. My Master’s degree involved collaborating with colleagues from the University of Madrid.

some “touristy things” while in Madrid

My supervisor had previously collaborated with them on a similar project as mine and since I was continuing on the project, I had the opportunity to go work in their facilities too. Spain was amazing, I did physics and tourist things what more could I ask for? This was the greatest thing anyone had ever done for me and I could not be more grateful to my supervisor.

Just when I thought it could not get any better, I found myself travelling all over Europe for the next year and a half of my Master’s degree attending conferences and visiting other institutions for experiments. I found myself flying to Russia, New Zealand, Switzerland and Portugal. I even had the pleasure of meeting the Swiss ambassador H.E. Mrs Helene Budliger Artieda; I should say, she is a very wonderful woman.

This had to be best thing that could have happened to me, right? But no, it did not stop there. I completed my MSc in 2017 and I was beyond ecstatic to find out that I passed with distinction. I mean can you believe it? A whole distinction, I once upon a time hated physics in high school and now here I am getting a distinction for my Master’s degree. After getting my results, I immediately knew that this was my dream. Physics was where I belonged and so I enrolled to do my PhD with the same supervisor from my MSc.

Certainly, the journey to where I am right now was not easy but now that I am here now, I choose to focus on the good than the bad experiences. Here I am now into my second year of PhD; it is not a walk in the park but it is a walk that I am definitely willing and excited to take.

My University years thus far has taught me a lot.

I have learnt that not everything will go according to how I plan it.

I have learned that failing is part of the process of learning, the lesson is to get back up and put more effort than the first time.

I have learned that without friends and family nothing can be done (for me, especially my mother for all the support sacrifices she made to get me the best education).

It is ok to not know what you want to become. Keep an open mind to new opportunities, if we all knew what our destinies were then there would be no point to life. Life is a journey we need to explore, we discover something new about ourselves daily. If you already know what you want to be but struggling to get there, do not give up just yet. Everything takes times and moves at its own pace. Do not compare yourself to everyone else, you are a limited edition and your journey is yours alone.

The hand that rocked The Cradle of Humankind

I remember as a child I was obsessed with documentaries on Ancient Egypt, I would stare at the TV screen as though in a trance. 

Maropeng, Cradle of Humankind

For years, I spent time feeding my fascination for ancient people and culture, completely unaware of the treasure trove of evolutionary history 20 minutes away from my childhood home. I – now a paleoanthropologist- was completely unaware of the treasure of The Cradle of Humankind. The Cradle of Humankind plays a pivotal role in our understanding of our evolution as a species and I had never been there, not even once until I began my postgraduate degree in this remarkable field. This may seem like an odd confession but the more I read about it the more I realise that my experience (or lack thereof) was not unique.

Recently, a PhD candidate from the University of Edinburgh, Elsa Panciroli wrote an article for The Guardian on the image problem in palaeontology where she highlighted the barriers to diversity and the stereotypes that drive them. If ever you have watched “Jurassic Park”, “Indiana Jones” or even “The Mummy” you would notice that most of the heroes/scientists in these film share one commonality- they are all white males. This image has dominated the science since the early days with many women and people of colour actively excluded from the mainstream narrative.

jurassic world4
Do you see any similarities?

Could it be that I did not know about palaeontology because I was never actually the targeted candidate, groomed to become one? Could it be a systemic problem that has resulted in a lack of representation, specifically of African researchers? This, in a field that prides itself on our fossil record but too often, disregards the potential of African academics.

We often hear the term “representation matters”, it has even become a popular hashtag on Twitter but it is so much more than just a social media slogan, it is a mindset that should be adapted in every industry. As a young woman of colour in the field of palaeosciences, it was (and still is) important for me to see people like me in this space, and not only in the space but in senior positions.

In 2017, Dr Gaokgatlhe Mirriam Tawane became the curator of Plio-Pleistocene palaeontology at the Ditsong Museums of South Africa (she was also the first Black woman in South Africa to graduate with a Doctorate in palaeoanthropology) and for the very first time, I felt like I belonged. Dr Tawane is a phenomenal researcher and mentor, alongside other trailblazers such as Dr Dipuo Kgotleng and Dr Nonhlanhla Vilakazi of the University of Johannesburg. It still amazes me that in 2019 we are still seeing “firsts” as in “the first Black woman to achieve x.y,z”. But how do we change this? And indeed many will ask, is it even important that we do?

Dr Gaokgatlhe Mirriam Tawane, from the Ditsong Museums of South Africa

The answer to the latter is a resounding YES, it is important that we actively strive to change the perception of palaeosciences (and STEM careers in general) so that we introduce diverse narratives to an otherwise monotonous story. It is important because there are many South African schoolchildren who enjoy evolution and cherish their experiences at places like The Cradle of Humankind but who will never know that we need them to keep that spark alive and join us in academia.

The answer to the former question is a lot more complicated, how do you change a system? I do not have the answers to that, in my naivety I hope to change the world but practically this has to be a team effort and this team includes the demographic palaeontology was originally catered for, senior white men. Dr Kathleen Grogan so eloquently stated this idea in her recent Nature Ecology & Evolution article discussing gender bias in the workplace when she said, “Water can’t fix the leaks in the pipeline.”

leakey pipeline
The leaky pipeline of women in STEM

In order to address racial inequality and a lack of diversity in any field, we require an open, honest and uncomfortable conversation with all those who love science. We also need to actively ensure exposure to these fields in primary school, keeping that interest alive well into tertiary education. This means scrutinizing our outreach efforts as researchers in the field, policy makers and educators.

Often, calls for change are misinterpreted as disdain for a system, actually, it is a way of showing you care enough to know it can be better. I criticize my science because I love it, because I believe in its ability to unite people but I truly believe that we need the study of evolution, to actually evolve. How many women, how many Africans and how many people of colour with unique perspectives and a love for the science have we already allowed to seep through the cracks of a dated pipeline? I know I am not willing to lose another, not even one drop.