Ndoni Mchunu is the Wits University PhD candidate who is breaking gender barriers in science, and she’s taking other women along with her. Her non-profit, Black Women In Science, works to produce knowledge and awareness of science to rural women and expose female emerging researchers to reach opportunities. “My academic experience inspired me to start Black Women In Science; throughout my undergraduate degree I had never been taught by a black woman and that was concerning for me.”
The platform aims to not only foster a culture of collaboration among black women scientists but to also challenge the systems within science that keep women away from the field. “We need to take time to understand the woman scientist and redefine them into the modern way in which science should be done. We need to understand what interests them, what causes them to leave or stay and the personal experiences and traumas they’ve had to deal with so we can adjust models to suit them to stay.”
Bridging the gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is crucial for the growth and development of societies, especially in Africa, where STEM fields are regarded as development drivers by the African Union. Making an active contribution to this, as well as meeting brilliant scientists who endorse and support the organization, has been the highlight of Ndoni’s leadership experience. “We also facilitate Sustainability Projects – community-based organizations and businesses tackling a range of sustainability issues from recycling waste to water renewal.” One of these projects has gone on to receive support from the Dutch Embassy under the Young Water Council.
But as expected, great success comes at the cost of great adversity. “Funding is a known challenge. Finding people who will rally behind your vision is difficult.” Additionally, she admits that she’s had to learn how to think like an entrepreneur in order to grow BWIS, “I am a scientist so I’ve had to be intentional about learning to think like a business; how to lead and manage,” she explains.
In 2017, Ndoni became a Mandela Washington Fellow, adding to her long list of accolades. The fellowship is the flagship program of the U.S government’s Young African Leaders’ Initiative (YALI). Besides having access to a continent-wide network of young leaders who are pioneering in different industries, Ndoni says the program also taught her the value of taking care of her well-being. “Nobody really asks about you as a leader nor do you ask about yourself; you kind of just focus on making things work and that can get overwhelming. A course I did while I was in Washington taught me about being aware of my internal struggles and how to manage them,” she says.
Her advice for young people who want to get into science is to be well prepared, to do extensive research, and surround themselves with a diverse network of people. “Your friends in accounting and inhumanities are important because they will help you practice inter-disciplinary thinking. Your artist’s friends, for example, will force you to learn to communicate your science because you’ll have to make it make sense to them without the background.”
Ndoni is currently pursuing a PhD through the Global Change Institute at Wits University where she’s working with countries like Brazil, China, and India. Her research topic looks at the relationship between climate change and food production as well as exploring ways to protect farmers from the effects of climate change.