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The incredible rise – and heartbreak – of top scientist Senamile Masango

2017-09-09 12:37

At the age of 30, Senamile Masango is a nuclear scientist who formed part of the first African team to lead an experiment at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research.

She’s been honoured by President Jacob Zuma, and is ploughing on full steam towards her PhD.

Although it seems like she has life all mapped out, it hasn’t always been easy.

Masango was born and bred in the fringes of KwaZulu Natal, KwaNongoma. She hails from a polygamous family and her late father had three wives – her mother was the junior one.

“My mum is a princess which makes me a princess too. However, I was raised by Mankosi, my father’s second wife.”

Masango started university as a naïve teenager at the age of 16. Soon she found herself pregnant and failing some of her modules.

“I abused the freedom and subsequently lost focus,” she said.

She said university was her only chance of freedom because her father was a strict man who never even allowed sleepovers.

Her father was a well-known chief inspector from KwaNongoma.

“He was a principled leader and role model who raised us very well and dropped the seed of education in us. He also taught us the value of ubuntu and generosity.”

But she wasn’t so sure about the decision to go to university at 16.

“I would not advise parents to allow their children to attend university at such an early age. Instead, they should rather let them take a gap year.”

After giving birth to her daughter, she took a year’s break from varsity and her mother stepped in when she returned to her studies.

Tragedy struck her last year, when her seven-year-old daughter was run over by a car.

Trying to put the heartbreak of losing her child behind her, Masango is now a full-time MSc student in nuclear physics at the University of Western Cape. She specialises in investigating the structure of the nucleus, using a technique called coulomb excitation to help understand the nuclear force that is still under research.

Zuma recently lauded Masango for her remarkable accomplishment.

“We congratulate this inspirational young African woman on her excellent achievement and hope that she will serve as beacon for all other young African women to follow in her footsteps and achieve their goals and dreams,” he said.

An awestruck Masango said: “I couldn’t sleep that day. What a great honour it was to be acknowledged by the president. It’s a life-changing experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. This is not about me but about making changes for the next generation, which will be easy because my name is already out there.”

Masango is the founder and chairperson of non-governmental organisation South African Women in Science and Engineering, which is registered with the department of social development.

Wise Africa, as it is called, serves to promote leadership and role models for young people wishing to enter the fields of science and technology, and increase the scientific productivity and efficiency of women scientists in the third world by conducting surveys and analyses about the status of women and recognising their achievements.

Masango once turned her house into a makeshift study centre for Grade 10, 11 and 12 pupils in her community, to whom she also provided maths and physics lessons and career guidance.

She donated all her high school study material and books to less fortunate pupils who couldn’t afford to buy prescribed textbooks. She also selflessly assisted university entrants with the application process and fees.

“I am passionate about education and contributing to making the South African education system a better one by assisting in improving maths and science pass rates. I want to change the lives of youth in disadvantaged backgrounds, bring science to the people and encourage more black researchers in scarce skills,” she said.

“I also want to make education fashionable in my lifetime.”

Masango’s foremost objective is to focus on her studies to acquire her PhD. In the long term she wants to become a successful businesswoman in the consulting industry with a company that would focus on project management, engineering and energy.

Other endeavours in Masango’s pipeline include hosting an educational show with a focus on science, penning a book, travelling the world and gracing the cover of Forbes Magazine. In addition, she dreams of launching a clothing line in an effort to make education fashionable.

Another dream is to meet entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth.

“As a young girl I always wanted to make history by becoming the first African woman to travel to space. I was so disappointed when Mark Shuttleworth traveled to space first.

“Hopefully I will meet him one day and congratulate him on his achievement as he has done very well.”

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September 17 2017