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The Ocean Womxn program – supporting a new generation of black oceanographers

The University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa is in a prime location to conduct oceanographic research and features a wealth of scientific expertise. However, as in many institutions, the pool of oceanographic researchers can be quite homogenous. UCT researchers Katye AltieriSarah Fawcett and Isabelle Ansorge realized that while the academic staff in the Department of Oceanography at UCT is comprised of ~50% womxn, it is 100% white. Furthermore, in 2019, amongst postgraduates in the department, there were only 12 Black African and Coloured South African womxn out of 73 students. The barriers that prevent higher representation of Black womxn in oceanography and climate science are numerous and include financial restrictions and lack of resources or training opportunities. The feeling of ‘otherness’ can also prevent Black womxn from feeling like a part of the research community. Altieri says that she and her colleagues saw an opportunity to create “a dedicated programme that offers field work preparation, mentorship and support for black womxn so they can become future leaders of oceanography in South Africa and the global south”. The three womxn joined forces with Juliet Hermes from the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), and they decided to apply for a grant from the Advancing Womxn initiative, created by UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. 

The result is Ocean Womxn, a program funded for an 5 year initial period, that aims to remove barriers and provide support for Black womxn in oceanography. In the first year, 5 womxn joined the program, with 2 more following in 2021. The Fellows receive comprehensive support – this includes financial cover for the duration of their degree, relocation costs, field gear budget and a laptop. They also have sea-going opportunities, such as SEAmester cruises, where they can develop lab skills and receive hands-on experience. Additionally, they are offered the option of swimming, boating and scuba lessons. 

PLOS ONE recently spoke with some of the Ocean Womxn Fellows to learn more about the program and how it has impacted their journey as early career oceanographers. 

Faith February is a Ph.D. candidate in Ocean and Atmosphere Science at the University of Cape Town. Her research focuses on characterising atmospheric aerosols in False Bay to improve the understanding and inputs to prediction models for climate change. At the same time, she is also addressing the scarcity of observational aerosol data in the Southern Hemisphere. Faith loves the exposure and support that she and her research is getting through the Advancing Womxn Fellowship. She is now reaching out and mentoring other young women in STEM fields. Her goal is to advance the representation of women in the scientific research arena.

Black woman oceanographer standing next to a helicopter

Kolisa Sinyanya is a Ph.D. candidate and her research is part of a growing body of work that critically examines biogeochemical cycling in the ocean, particularly regions that are currently under-sampled. Her research which is documented in The Conversation Africa aims to involve exploring phytoplankton community dynamics and microbe-nutrient interactions in the Indian Ocean, including subtropical and Southern Ocean waters. She’s a Black Women In Science South Africa 2019 Fellow, an Inspiring Fifty Women in STEM South Africa nominee, FameLab Cape Town runner up and a Pint of Science South Africa and TEDxUCT speaker. Kolisa is passionate about learning and sharing her science! 

PLOS ONE: Doctoral training programs and fellowships often provide valuable resources and opportunities for PhD candidates. What opportunities have you had as an Ocean Womxn Fellow that you might not have otherwise had as a general PhD student? 

Faith: I would definitely say the emotional and moral support by being in a cohort. Also, the mentor sessions with other women and role models in STEM fields. An added opportunity is definitely the exposure that we get on social media and all over for changing the landscape for black womxn in Oceanography. 

Kolisa: My most memorable and unique opportunities that I am receiving through Ocean Womxn are networking with influential women in the world of STEM. Every month we have visiting mentors ranging from women Professors to women PhD candidates who are making waves in their industries and fields of expertise. This is unique to Ocean Womxn as no other fellowship does this in our department. From these face-to-face interactions we get to ask whatever questions we want answered by the invited mentor. This has largely enriched not just my thinking, but I have formed relationships with some of our guests and have been recommended for opportunities by some.   

PLOS ONE: Researchers from under-represented groups/communities often experience a “burden of service”, whereby they are asked to do more outreach and engagement activities than their colleagues. This can take time away from doing actual research. Have you ever previously experienced this, and how has the Ocean Womxn program helped you to avoid being in this situation? 

Faith: For me the outreach and engagement activities are not a “burden of service”, but rather an act of love and kindness to reach out to other under-represented groups. The support that I experienced through the Ocean Womxn program inspired me to support other young womxn in STEM research fields. I got involved in the Project Kuongoza Mentorship program as a mentor to mentees across Africa and am now “serving” my continent outside the borders of the country! I believe that you need to have a balance in life and sharing about your experiences in research should be seen as part of enriching your life. 

Kolisa: Yes, I have experienced this. More so because I am a well-known science communicator and so in addition to having the responsibility of “burden of service” I have the responsibility to “teach” science to the masses. Ocean Womxn has enhanced this and for me it really is not a burden but a privilege. I see it as a privilege because I get to be an underrepresented group representative doing the service so well, encouraging others to follow in my footsteps and see that it is possible. It is key for me to be this type of scientist because I did not have this as I grew up in a world where I had no black women ocean scientists to look up to. Ocean Womxn has magnified my role as a role model in not just ocean sciences but in science at large. 

PLOS ONE: What is the most memorable fieldwork or laboratory experience you have had so far? 

Faith: I was involved in the First European-South African Transmission Experiment which was an international collaboration between Germany, Netherlands, Norway, and South Africa. It was a huge challenge and honour for me to be responsible for the data acquisition, analysis, storage, and maintenance of the aerosol equipment. It also led to me doing my PhD! 

Kolisa: My most memorable fieldwork to date is being part of the Prince Edward Island sampling expedition for my PhD. On the expedition we sailed to the subantarctic Southern Ocean on the SA Agulhas II which is South Africa’s research vessel. I spent about 2 and half months in the middle of the ocean living though sea storms and calm waters. It was my first experience out that far into the open ocean. I returned to land as a new woman. I was transformed mentally and had this urge to change the world with my science and I believe that is exactly what I am currently doing. I wanted to make academia and science inclusive, especially for black women! 

PLOS ONE: Your research focuses on understanding the impacts of climate change. How did you become interested in this field?  

Faith: My research on atmospheric aerosols, and more specifically sea spray aerosols, seeks to address the uncertainty about the drivers of climate change. As sea spray aerosols occur naturally in the atmosphere, it can be used as a proxy for pre-industrial conditions and to determine how anthropogenic activities contributed to climate change. I am a Physicist and was involved in characterizing atmospheric effects over the ocean on visual and infrared cameras, when it became apparent that aerosols (microscopic particles) play a huge role in the atmosphere. I then decided to do my PhD atmospheric aerosols to improve the understanding and inputs of aerosols to prediction models of climate change. 

Kolisa: Our planet is changing as we know it and our role as scientists is key in uncovering the shifts. As science majors we always heard, read about, and were constantly reminded of global warming which leads to climate change. This sparks interest in many of us to want to uncover and dissect the intricacies of how this happens, how it affects our planet and what we need to do to mitigate it. Therefore, my interests I can say were sparked long before I even knew I would take my research focuses this far into academia. I wanted to be one of the first and few black women scientists from Africa who are part of this global research to understand our planet. 

PLOS ONE: More and more researchers are committing to the mission of Open Science: to making the entire research process openly accessible, transparent, and reproducible. Examples of this include publishing in open access journals, preregistering research plans, publishing protocols, as well as sharing data and code. What are your thoughts on Open Science and how do you feel this kind of improved transparency, accessibility and equity impacts scientific research? 

Faith: I am all for Open Science! It was such a relief when articles that were previously behind the paywall became available due to the pandemic. I think that scientific research will now reach higher heights and swifter turnarounds with more diverse collaborations. The Covid-19 vaccine rollouts is a sterling example of how the “openness” of scientific science can contribute to quicker implementations and finding solutions for all. 

Kolisa: I personally have chosen the path of science communication to merge with my research because I support open science. Open science starts with transparency, inclusivity and being accommodative. When our science is openly accessible and well understood we achieve more with our discoveries. The aim of us doing science is to understand how systems work and report on those. These reports are in forms of difficult journal papers that take a lot to understand. I believe that we need to evolve with the times and make our science open and easily understandable by anyone who reads our findings and recommendations. How will the world improve, and people be educated if we do not articulate ourselves strategically to be open and transparent about our data, our research plans and our publishing and communication? 

Here are some other Ocean Womxn Fellows:

Thando Mazomba

Wanjiru Thoithi

Sizwekazi Yapi

Fortunate Mogane

Philile Mvula


Lerato Mpheshea

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