Zamanzima Mazibuko has a BSc in Biochemistry & Human Physiology, BSc Honours in Pharmacology and MSc (Med) in Pharmaceutics; all from Wits University. She is a Senior Researcher at a research institute in Joburg. Her work looks at a transdisciplinary approach to research in a range of topics, including the natural sciences. She is from Dobsonville, Soweto. Zamanzina loves reading African Literature, written by black women and she loves black women.
On falling in love with Science:
Zamanzina: I can’t remember the exact moment I became interested in Science, but it was sometime between grade 11 and 12. Strangely enough for a while I wanted to pursue law. My dad even organised with a friend of his who was in the legal sector to take me to his workplace for those “take a girl child to work” days. But at some point, I realised I enjoyed chemistry and biology way too much to not take that route. Everything about these two subjects has fascinated me ‘til this day. School was the only place I was directly exposed to science besides Olympiads here and there. I do remember enjoying watching CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) which had captivating science scenes, as fictitious or irrelevant to South Africa as some were (didn’t know that then though). I generally did well at school and that’s mostly what pushed me towards science. Choosing to focus on biology and chemistry however, came from genuinely enjoying them and not just being good at them. And retrospectively I actually had no idea how vast careers in science were until I reached University and I found out even more the more I studied. In high school I had little knowledge about biological sciences (in terms of career paths), so you can imagine how excited I was when I found there were various options incorporating both biology and chemistry. Science is unquestionably a part of who I am. It comes out in the way I approach things in my life; the research I do before embarking on most things. I see science in a lot of things I do, read, think about. There were times I wanted to move away completely from the sciences because I was so frustrated by my progress. But each time my heart would not allow me to (also I couldn’t imagine not being referred to as a scientist because it’s really cool). I am a scientist, unreservedly.
On entering the field of Science for the first time:
Zamazina: The way this finding a job thing is set up, it took me some time to find a suitable job for me and while I was looking I worked as a researcher in fields not related to science at all (this made me realise how much I love science, haha). And now in my current job, I am a woman scientist in an environment made mostly for people in the humanities and political economy. My workplace strives for transdisciplinarity which I absolutely enjoy but my fears- especially as a woman scientist who is a bit of an introvert, were how would I find my own space in an environment of extroverts. I feared I wouldn’t be able to show how capable I am and fail at linking hard science to the social sciences. These fears were challenged! Introverts have their own space too and I found mine. I continue to create a path for myself and occasionally, the miniscule extroverted parts of me come out. Also, I got promoted within a year, so my fears were definitely challenged.
On women dropping out of STEM studies:
Zamanzima: Throughout my undergraduate studies there were always more women in my classes than men. Biological sciences generally had a healthy number of women enrolled. However, in my experience black woman training to be scientists don’t get as much support as their peers. You will have the same supervisor yet receive inferior support and training, therefore your experience of the course (and progress) is different from your peers. We have to constantly find our way through our degrees without much assistance and I think it gets to a point where you would rather drop out, especially when you get to postgraduate level. To be truly considered a scientist in this industry and for your work to be taken seriously (depending on what route you take of course) getting a postgraduate qualification is essential. But making it through postgraduate studies as a black woman is a lot! There were times I wanted to quit my Masters.
On being a woman scientist:
Zamanzima: I am aware of my gender in all aspects of my life, not just spaces of work. However, the work I do requires me to attend several conferences and networking is an essential part of my job. This means I sometimes engage with men who don’t want to interact with me only on a professional basis. It is not easy distinguishing between a man who is professional and sincerely values my intellectual contribution and one who will just send me inappropriate Whatsapp messages once they have my business card. And I have experienced both. I can see how at these conferences men speak to me and other women differently from when they speak to each other. It’s exhausting.
On gender based awards:
Well, playing fields are not level and it will take a lot of time before they are. Women must jump through multiple hoops before achieving what their male counterparts achieve without the same number of obstacles. Men will breeze through it all then their work referenced as ground-breaking. My experience has been that women, especially black women, are brilliant scientists. Problem-solving skills at unbelievable levels! Yet this gets overlooked and rewards are few and far between. So, attention must be drawn to women’s achievements please.
On Science outside of the lab:
Science is unquestionably a part of who I am. It comes out in the way I approach things in my life; the research I do before embarking on most things. I see science in a lot of things I do, read, think about. There were times I wanted to move away completely from the sciences because I was so frustrated by my progress. But each time my heart would not allow me to (also I couldn’t imagine not being referred to as a scientist because it’s really cool). I am a scientist, unreservedly.
On ways to encourage women and girls to pursue Science:
Zamanzima: Well this platform is a start, so thank you. Having regular TV shows depicting women scientists as a norm would be really cool. I think girls seeing women scientists often in media, and not only as part of careers day once they are in high school, would go a long way in encouraging them to pursue careers in science. The way girls are raised and what they are exposed to needs to change and it can’t be left to chance. We need to actively ensure that girls know they can be scientists (or anything else considered too challenging for girls) if they want to, from an early age. Can we see little girls playing with toy lab equipment and labcoats instead of only kitchen sets and aprons? What they choose to pursue after that is of course up to them but exposure is important. We need to stop seeing science, especially for women, as elite. Science is all around us, our environment, our bodies, so it’s ridiculous that it has been seen as reserved for a few when we all experience it all the time. It is especially not reserved for men.
It was a pleasure to interview you Zamanzima. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights.
Check back with me next week Wednesday for the next interview.
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.