Dr. Kebaneilwe Lebani is Biomedical Science graduate who has specialised in Biotechnology at Masters level and subsequently received a multi-disciplinary doctoral degree from the University of Queensland, Australia. The focus of her PhD thesis was on isolation, characterization and engineering of monoclonal antibodies. During her doctoral studies she also attained a Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education to support her passion as an educationalist. She is currently a lecturer and researcher at the Botswana International University of Science and Technology.
“I have always had high ambitions for myself and have been fortunate enough to have the universe align the stars for me to achieve my academic dreams. I am nowhere near where I want to be in terms of research and would like to have access to platforms that offer me opportunities for research collaborations and accessing research funding. Furthermore, I would like to see more girls and women being involved in science and would love to play a role in motivating and empowering them.”- Kebaneilwe Lebani, PHD
Phro: At what point in your life did you become interested in pursuing a career in Science?
Dr. Lebani: I do not remember it as a single moment. I remember filling out a future career form during my early years in high school, and I distinctly remember writing that I wanted to be a lecturer. I never gave specifics of which discipline I wanted to teach, but I knew I wanted to be involved in education because I have had many great teachers. Academically, I was an all rounder (except for English Literature!) but I gravitated towards Biology even though my mentor and most impactful teacher – Mr Hudson Mazwi – taught me chemistry.
P: Were you exposed to Science (outside of school curriculum) in any form growing up?
Dr. Lebani: To be honest, not really. I was never the person who would build models of volcanoes or know all of the names of the dinosaurs. I am actually terrified of the day that my daughter asks me how the solar system works! I have a few years to finally figure it out. I was always fascinated by the principles of biology from school. I wanted to know how things work. My sister and my cousin were both at university pursuing degrees in science, so ending up in science as well was more of a natural progression.
P: 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?
Dr. Lebani: I am working for a relatively new institution. Due to some of the teething problems, it does sometimes feel like what I am doing is a job but I would definitely like it to morph into a career filled with great success and great memories.
P: 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?
Dr. Lebani: I did not think of my being female as an advantage or a handicap. Wholly, I have always had pleasant experiences. The ratio of females to males has been in most cases balanced. The imbalance however is very clear when it comes to leadership roles and I feel that that is where the spotlight should be shone.
P: 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?
Dr. Lebani: I do not think that I am highly aware of my gender but I am highly aware of instances where I feel that there in unequal representations of both genders.
P: 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?
Dr. Lebani: Perhaps I have only encountered phenomenal women who have chosen science because of their passion for it and have found ways to remain science over the years. The few that have left the field have done so because of family commitments but still maintain a keen interest in science.
P: Some women Scientists have said 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?
Dr. Lebani: I do not feel that there is an issue with gender-based awards. It is a safe space to discuss the challenges and celebrate the successes of great women. Often times women are balancing work, family (nuclear and/or extended) and marriage. Harrowing sacrifices are sometimes made to overcome barriers to being exceptional in the field of choice.
P: 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?
Dr. Lebani: It is critical that we stop minimising our successes. We should not shy away from celebrating them in fear of being boastful. We should not be apologetic. Making people aware of the skills that we have and the successes we have had makes us visible for those opportunities to progress to leadership roles. Confidence and the idea that we are full of potential, has to be seeded in all girls from a very young age. The responsibility lies with us from inception as mothers, aunts and sisters and has to be maintained through mentorship.
It was a pleasure to interview you Dr. Lebani, thank you for taking time off your busy schedule to share your insights.
And a big thank you to the amazing women who have participated in this project. The response has been overwhelming and I am honoured to share your stories. Check back with me next week Wednesday for the next interview of a bad-ass woman in Science.
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.