Guest post by Dr. Tozama Qwebani-Ogunleye, 2018 Emerging Leader of South Africa
Editor’s note: Dr. Tozama Qwebani-Ogunleye’s guest post is the first in a new series, Emerging Leader Voices, which invites TechWomen Emerging Leaders to share their voice, perspective and experiences with the TechWomen community.
I am an African woman in an African country where modern ideas fight with the traditional for space in an ever-changing society. Many see this juxtaposition as problematic; I choose to see it as an opportunity.
I have always had an innate love for maths. My adolescent afternoons were spent preparing for the Maths 24 School Challenge. My parents bought the Maths 24 kit and each Sunday my parents, brother, sister and I would play. My passion for maths, along with my family’s support, culminated in me representing my school at a national level at the Maths 24 School Challenge.
My passion for science began after reading about penicillin and how it was discovered by chance. Soon after, I won an opportunity at the age of 14 to represent South Africa at a youth science event in Vienna, Austria. I met young scientists from all over the world and rubbed shoulders with South African and Austrian dignitaries. It was then that I had the epiphany that cultural and ethnic diversity can be a source of strength and a boon in solving global challenges. This set me on my life’s path. Today, the core of what I do as a Project Director at Dihlare Pty Ltd at the Vaal University of Technology is an embodiment of this philosophy. As project manager and researcher, I contribute to the development of formulations using quality-assured traditional medicine. I play a part in preserving, promoting and protecting traditional healing as a holistic health care practice.
My path has not always been easy, however. I grew up in a small village called Bizana in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, far away from established scientific centers. In my matric [high school] year there were only three of us taking higher grade mathematics. We attended the standard grade class and taught ourselves the higher-grade syllabus after school and on weekends. I was accepted at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and, despite my thirst for knowledge as a child, I began to see the effects of my limited resources. I had never seen a microscope before, let alone touched one. I spent my whole first year catching up, leaving the labs at lock up time.
My experience taught me that failures could be overcome with hard work: I ended up winning the CSIR Biosciences Student of the Year Award, followed by several others, including the Women in Science Award of the Department of Science and Technology in South Africa. This year I was the project leader at Vaal University of Technology for the National Science Week in collaboration with NRF-SAASTA, a country-wide celebration of STEM run through the Department of Science and Technology.
I heard about TechWomen through social media from Mide Ayeni, a 2017 TechWomen fellow from Nigeria. She tagged me in a post where she was encouraging us to apply. I went straight to the TechWomen website to read more and saw that it was an opportunity of a life time and one I would take full advantage of should I become a fellow. I was so excited when I read that I had made it to the semi-finalists, I called Mide and thanked her for telling me about TechWomen.
When the email came notifying me that I had made it, I screamed and jumped with excitement. I called my husband, parents, siblings, friends and colleagues–it was as if I was dreaming. The next morning I reflected on my journey to TechWomen, remembering my best maths teacher, Mr. Mthithala at Bizana Primary school. These opportunities are celebratory monuments representing my origin and hard work; they are a reminder of the path I need to follow to reach my next stop.
Becoming a TechWomen fellow is such a celebration: it has the potential to put my name, my family name, my university and my town on the map of potential future leaders in science.
I am looking forward to the professional mentorship, opportunities to learn and unlearn and to build a global professional network. I will contribute passion, hunger for greatness and an ability to inspire and mentor. I aspire to have a strong network nationally and at a global level, and to use these networks to drive positive change, especially in closing the gender gap in STEM. We have already started our cultural kick-off presentation with the other four ladies from my home country, and we are all super excited.
See you soon in San Francisco!
Dr. Tozama Qwebani-Ogunleye is a Project Director at Vaal University of Technology. She earned her master’s in Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Cape Town and her Ph.D in Chemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand. In addition to her accolades above, Tozama was also awarded a Ph.D Scholarship for Emerging Scientists through TATA-Africa as well as the Fogarty Fellowship through the Aurum Institute. She is a lifelong student and teacher who is passionate about science and innovation.