Mudiwa Nathasia Muwanigwa is a 23 year old Zimbabwean woman doing a Masters in Molecular Mechanisms of Disease at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands. Mudiwa is an aspiring neuroscientist who wants to work on studying molecular mechanisms of neurological disorders. She is currently doing a Master’s internship with the Molecular Neurophysiology lab in the Human Genetics Department at Radboud University Medical Centre. Mudiwa is a Mental Health awareness advocate and the founder of Mentalityzim blog.
Phro: At what point in your life did you become interested in pursuing a career in Science?
Mudiwa: I knew since primary school that I would be in the scientific field, but for a long time I believed that was in the context of being a doctor because growing up, that’s what you did if you liked biology related subjects. So as recently as the final year of my Bachelor’s degree, I thought I would pursue Medicine. I was fortunate enough to do a final year research project in a leukemia research lab, and I was inspired to pursue biomedical research. I found the prospect of being in the lab, understanding diseases and developing therapies to be more appealing than going the doctor route.
Phro: Were you exposed to Science (outside of school curriculum) in any form growing up? Do you think it encouraged your interest in Science or was it something you did as a hobby/entertainment/a way to pass time?
Mudiwa: Reading was my major gateway into science. I was a major book worm, and I would always take out science books from the library in primary school. Also, Dexter’s lab is one of my all time favorite cartoons. Reading about science was all that to me – a hobby, entertaining and a way to pass the time and most importantly sparked a deep interest.
Phro: What were your expectations/fears (if any ) when you entered the workplace for the first time as a woman scientist? Were your fears confirmed or challenged?
Mudiwa: 19 out of my 24 classmates are women. The lab I’m interning in currently is 90% women. So women appear to be highly represented at Masters and PhD level at least at my University. Because of this, I didn’t really have any fears when I started studying here. However, I do have to note there is clearly a great gender disparity as we go higher up the academia level. Most of the professors here are men.
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?
Mudiwa: I believe that I am a scientist at heart, and it’s not something I leave behind whenever I leave the lab. Not that I am thinking of my project specifically, but I think the way I approach life, my inquisitive nature, always looking for facts and not being satisfied until I have a solid answer. I love understanding how things work and why they work. The intricacies of science never cease to astound me and I think regardless of whether I stay working in a scientific environment, it is just a part of who I am.
Phro: Women drop out of STEM fields at an alarming rate. Have you witnessed this first hand? If so, what do you think causes it?
Mudiwa: I can’t say I have witnessed it firsthand but I’m definitely aware that it happens. Speaking on scientific research specifically, it’s a very demanding and time consuming career. There is a lot of pressure to publish and lobby for grants. Often women come to a crossroads where they either have to choose personal life (mainly centered around having children) or professional life, and I think many just go for personal. I feel the system has been set up to discourage women from doing both.
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?
Mudiwa: Not at all to be honest. As I mentioned previously, the lab I work in currently is majority women. I have been pretty fortunate in this regard as I know this is not necessarily the norm. I do not take this for granted.
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?
Mudiwa: Honestly, I’m a bit on the fence with this one. I think gender based awards have been a good thing, because these awards create platforms that give visibility to women scientists who would potentially not be recognized otherwise. However, I believe science is science, and your science should speak for itself and you should be awarded as such, whether you are a man, woman or whatever gender you identify as. But, until we are all on a level playing field, these awards are necessary.
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?
Mudiwa: Women in science need to be more visible and speak about the work they do. They need to come together to create more platforms that promote awareness on the vast amount of career paths that can be followed in the STEM field. We need to start mentoring girls from a young age and letting them know that they can pursue science if that’s what they are into by sharing our own experiences.
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.