Nthabiseng Nooe is a hydrogeologist working mostly in groundwater monitoring, information services pertaining to groundwater, and contributing to regulations that protect groundwater resources for sustainable and equitable access. She is from Thabong in Welkom in the Free State, South Africa, and she works in the Western Cape region.
She is driven by fairness, equity, and equality. She daydreams about a world that is a Utopia for presently marginalised people. She is absolutely great at lying down in her spare time and fantasising about being a better dancer than she is currently.
p.s. Her dreams are valid.
Phro: At what point in your life did you become interested in pursuing a career in Science? Were you exposed to Science (outside of school curriculum) in any form growing up?
Nthabiseng: I can’t remember the exact point, but I had always been a curious child – so direct exposure to science at school was something that fascinated me. Part of what made me roll with science as career was plainly the fact that I was generally good at it. My path to science was a mixture of curiosity and wanting to permanently massage my own ego. Exposure outside of school was mostly through children’s tv shows and cartoons. I was reading a whole lot of Mills & Boon as a child and I don’t recall ever signing a science book out from the library for anything other than an assignment. In grade 9 I started doing extracurricular science work through entering expos, Olympiads, and youth in water science programmes offered by Department of Water and Sanitation – all of these programmes were a great way to investigate and make things.
Phro: Do you think your exposure to Science encouraged you interest or was it something you did as a hobby/entertainment/a way to pass time?
Nthabiseng: Most of the extracurricular stuff I ended up doing were to test my abilities, so maybe we can call that a functional hobby. I basically fell into science, after the initial curiosity, because I was one of the “smart” children in school, and “smart” children do science.
Phro: Studies have shown that women drop out of STEM fields at an alarming rate. Have you witnessed this first hand? If so, what do you think causes it?
Nthabiseng: Men are terrible and territorial people. Men that think they know science better because they are men are entitled and territorial people. Men that imagine that women exist to entertain them are dangerous to work around. I can imagine why women would drop out of STEM fields but I am yet to witness this in my particular work space. However, I was subjected to misogyny in the form of “jokes” as a lone woman in my honours year. I saw how my White classmates responded to us having our first Black woman lecturer when I was an undergraduate. I had always known that I have no plans to remain in academia, but the way that people used unfounded arguments to argue against being taught by a Black woman scratched out academia as an option for me.
Phro: What were your expectations/fears (if any) when you entered the workplace for the first time as a scientist? Were your fears confirmed or challenged?
Nthabiseng: I had imagined that maybe I would not have learned enough practical work skills at university and that I would really struggle to get through my first few tasks. I had also imagined that my colleagues would be those essentialist scientists that see no other thing in the world except the “empirical evidence”. If I had only studied up until my undergraduate, my first fear would have been confirmed because most of what I do is what I encountered at a postgraduate level, therefore “basic education” in order to be competent at entry level is a minimum of a honours degree in hydrogeology/geohydrology; which is challenge. My colleagues are not made of steel and they relate to others as human beings, and I am happy that the fear was challenged because I would not like to be going to work at a place where all I am is a science doer of things.
Phro: Would you say that your work is a job, something you do for a living that is separate from your life or is Science a significant part of who you are?
Science is something that is definitely part of me. I am invested now and it is also part of the ways that I approach my activism. Even if I were to end up working in another field, I would still be peeping at what is happening in the sciences.
Phro: Are you constantly aware of your gender when in your spaces of work? Do you ever feel like it is a barrier for you or in how others treat you?
I have become hyperaware of my gender and how it dictates how other people regard or treat me for quite a while now. I started the job with a White male colleague at the beginning of this year. Our direct boss is probably one of the most fair White women I have come across, but there are other people at work that walk into our office and assume that they will get what they ask for if they ask my White male colleague. I am a fan of letting people suffer with their own work if they do not imagine that I am capable of helping them, and I am petty enough to let them come back to me begging. Fortunately, because of the way our organisation is set up, they cannot grant my White male colleague opportunities that I am denied, so I have some kind of protection.
Phro: Some women Scientists have stated publicly that they feel gender-based awards for Science give them special treatment and that they prefer to be judged on a level playing with all genders. Do you agree with this? Or do you think gender-based awards are useful?
What is a level playing field when “merit” is still gendered because we do not do science in a vacuum? What is a level playing field when women have been purposefully excluded and erased in science and are being actively driven out? No, give us those awards and let us have room to talk about our experiences of the field.
Phro: How can society do a better job of sharing the stories of women in Science and encouraging women and girls to pursue careers in Science?
First of all, we need to understand that science is not difficult to do, and it shouldn’t be reserved for “smart” people based off surviving how the education system presents and assesses knowledge. We first need to deal with patriarchal notions marking men as inherently capable of doing things we regard difficult. Then we we can effectively deal with women being able to do science and staying to do science if they are so inclined. For now, we will continue writing about women in science as this series does. We will have awards for women only, and we will keep letting our colleagues suffer without offering help if they initially assume we are incapable of doing the science work.
This series is a collection of interviews from women studying or working in Science. Please note it is open to all transwomen and non-binary persons too. If you would like to share your story please contact me here.