African women in science awards

Forget Big Brother, Idols and Popstars. On Friday night four women who have made it to the finals will discover who has won Africa’s first Distinguished Woman Scientist award, funded by the South African government's department of science and technology. The winner gets R50,000.

And three young female scientists will walk away with R100,000 each in the new African Woman Scientist fellowships. The money is meant to fund study overseas or buy much-needed equipment. Several entries were received for these fellowships for emerging female scientists from Africa, including Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana and Kenya, but organisers are pleading for additional entries for next year. Details regarding next year's competition should be found soon on their website at

Christine Steinman, one of the finalists.University of Yaounde, Cameroon, nanomaterials physicist and Phd student Fernande Fotsa Ngaffo, age 25, is shortlisted for one of the emerging women scientist fellowships being awarded, for her work in coating solar panels with an ultrafine film of gold and titanium which makes them work much more effectively. Other finalists include Africa's first black evolutionary physiologist, zoology Phd student Nomakwezi Mzilakazi, age 24, of South Africa's University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and laser physicist Phd student Christine Steinmann, age 29, of Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape Province of South Africa.

Meanwhile, the finalists for the position of Distinguished Women Scientist are .....

Professor Esté Vorster directs preventative and therapeutic nutritional interventions at Potchefstroom University in the NorthWest province of South Africa. She’s behind a huge global conference on nutrition to be held for the first time in sub-Saharan Africa in 2005. When last year’s World Summit agreed to halve the slow death of under-nutrition by the end of the decade, as well as tackle dangerous Vitamin A deficiencies and fight anaemia, it fell to people like Vorster to try to turn this into reality. Vorster was one of the first women to play a leading role in nutrition research in South Africa.

South African biotechnologist Professor Jennifer Thomson is a scientist with an impeccable international pedigree. The author is probably best known in the non-scientific community for her cautious advocacy of genetically modified foods and other organisms. She argues that Africa must use the new technology when and if it suits our needs, rather than be dictated to by European concerns or other small unelected advocacy groups following their own agendas. For example, she has pointed out that the much-feared "terminator" seeds – which would allegedly force poor farmers to repeatedly buy GM seed from giant agrochemical companies – don’t yet exist. She’s Professor at the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Cape Town, and serves as a referee for various national and international scientific journals.

University of Cape Town Professor Zephne van der Spuy was the first woman to head an obstetrics and gynaecology department at a South African university. "My father always used to say set your sights high. Go beyond what you think you can do," she said. She did medicine at nearby Stellenbosch "with stars in her eyes" but hit the glass ceiling early. "I struggled to get a registrar post in those days," van der Spuy said. "I was told unofficially that the university didn’t appoint women to that post." An endocrinologist, the professor has a special interest on how hormones affect people, which interlinks with her much-publicised clinical trials testing a male contraceptive. She’s also involved in a huge international project examining people’s attitudes towards contraception, as well as combating infertility and making abortions safer. "I love clinical work. I like the patient contact," says the hard-working van der Spuy, who is also president of the College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of South Africa. "I also like teaching. It’s very satisfying mentoring people."

The last person on the short list, Professor Vanessa Watson, may not be considered by some hardline scientists to qualify as a finalist at all. She’s a leading authority on housing and urban renewal, working at the UCT Department of Architecture and Planning, but her influence extends throughout the continent. She has linked all 15 universities that teach planning across all of sub-Saharan Africa through the creation of the Association of African Planning Schools. "Right now urban environments cater for cars and those who have cars and have jobs. They don’t cater for pedestrians or for the woman with a toddler on her back," said Professor Watson, who is currently in talks with the World Bank on the issue of a pan-African university-level training programme in urban renewal.


September 2003