From teen mom to nuclear physicist – Senamile Masango is a shining example of how success is a non-linear process. Her key is self-confidence, support and hard work.
It’s not every day you meet a nuclear physicist whose story reads something like this: Grew up in a rural area under Apartheid, started university at 16, failed a few modules, fell pregnant, nearly dropped out, went on to become the first African woman to conduct an experiment at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
Senamile Masango’s story exemplifies the truth that success comes in different packages and by circuitous routes. Her journey of hardship and resilience is an inspiring lesson for us all. In speaking to her, it becomes clear that It’s not where you come from or even what happens to you that defines who you are – rather, it’s who you choose to become that really matters.
From humble beginnings
Senamile Masango grew up in Nongoma, a rural village in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. She comes from a polygamous family of teachers and says the value of education was instilled in her from an early age. As is so often the case, her parents’ attitude to education left an indelible mark; they were rigorous, dedicated and unequivocal in their respect for education. “Education is the one thing no one can take away from you,” was drummed into her by her father.
She became fascinated with science at the age of 11 when her geography teacher introduced the class to the concept of space exploration.
“I wanted to be the first African to land on the moon, but in 2003 Mark Shuttleworth beat me to it”, she jokes. She deviated from family tradition and chose to pursue a career in science. She hasn’t made it to the moon yet, but she is one of South Africa’s very few black female nuclear physicists.
A non-linear path
Senamile’s journey was never smooth-sailing. Having started school at the age of 4, she began university when she was just 16.
“I grew up with a very strict father. For me, university meant freedom.”
One of her biggest regrets is that she never had female mentors in the STEM track to guide her along the way.
“There were classes where I was the only female in my undergrad. I wish someone had been there to guide me.”
She reflects that she made many mistakes along the way. “I failed a few modules, I couldn’t finish my degree, and I also ended up pregnant.”
For many young women in a similar position, these hurdles might have meant the end of their academic pursuits. In South Africa, only 15% of university students make it from their first year all the way through to graduation. Unsurprisingly, the highest failure rates are in maths and science programmes.
Senamile experienced both failure and a major life event, but instead of quitting, she chose to persevere. She says the support of her family during this time was invaluable. She needed that support some years later, when her daughter was killed in a car accident on her very first day of school. Senamile kept going.
Breaking the glass ceiling in science
In June 2017, Senamile made headlines when she became the first African woman to conduct an experiment at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. This is where you’ll find the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – a 27 km long particle accelerator where high-energy particle beams travel close to the speed of light and are made to collide with each other.
Senamile and her team were studying the isotope selenium-70 in order to understand how its nucleic shape relates to its energy levels. She was the only woman on the team, although she marvels at the diversity that was present.
“This was also the first time an African institution had proposed an experiment at CERN. Most of us came from rural areas. We didn’t do our undergrads at UWC (the University of the Western Cape) and instead started at places like the University of Zululand, the University of Venda and Fort Hare – all historically disadvantaged institutions.”
Paving the way forward
Senamile has strong opinions about what needs to change in order for more girls to succeed in STEM careers in South Africa.
“As a country, we’re talking about the 4th industrial revolution. But first things first – we must fix our basic education. There is no way that we will develop without sorting out the education crisis.”
In 2014, the World Economic Forum ranked South Africa last (144 out of 144) in the quality of its maths and science education. In 2015, a World Bank report found that only 35% of Grade 6 learners were numerate at an acceptable level and the figure fell to a shocking 3% for Grade 9 learners.
Senamile attributes this deplorable state of affairs to two things: teacher training and the lack of comprehension that sets in early when one is compelled to study in anything but one’s own mother tongue.
Maths and science need to be taught in a student’s home language, she says. “Countries that do well in maths and science are countries where children learn the subject in their own language. We must revisit our language policies.”
Also, the way subjects are taught often confuses rather than enlightens. Teachers just don’t know their subjects. The 2015 World Bank report found that only 60% of people teaching mathematics in primary schools in South Africa could pass a test for the subject at the level at which they were teaching.
Senamile’s vision is to use her foundation, WISE Africa (Women in Science and Engineering in Africa), to help girls excel in maths and science.
“I want to raise money to build my own mobile science labs. Limpopo, KZN, Eastern Cape – these are all deep rural areas where there is no infrastructure for teaching a subject like science. Students are being tested on ammeters but have never even seen one. Imagine learning chemistry if you’ve never mixed anything!”
A circuitous path to success
In a world where success is so often misconstrued as a linear path that leads to happiness and wealth, Senamile’s journey is a reminder of the myriad ways that success is attained. Perhaps she defines the norm, in fact, when it comes to that mythical “road to success”; it’s more like a messy footpath, with detours and unexpected pauses along the way. It’s never straightforward. And it certainly isn’t easy.
Resilience is what really sets “successful” people apart from the rest. It’s that ability to face trying circumstances, relentless opposition, and still take ownership over who you want to be.
Senamile sees self-esteem as a vital factor in attaining one’s goals. Self-esteem, or basic confidence, tends to be overlooked in technical fields where words like “resilience” and “confidence” are overshadowed by accolades and outward excellence.
“Once your mind is right, there is nothing you can’t conquer. Science is challenging. You have to believe in yourself, be committed, work hard, and ultimately love what you do.”
For someone whose story might so easily have unfolded in other directions, Senamile Masango is proof yet again that circumstances don’t define your journey. Your choices do.