Plant biotechnology expert Prof. Nokwanda (Nox) Makunga says that she enjoys telling people about science as she enjoys her research.
||Keeping the science message going – Prof. Nox Makunga (Photo: Martin van Niekerk)
||Prof. Makunga challenges young scientists at Stellenbosch University to stand up and speak out about their science (Photo: Theo-Charl Kieck)
||She never says no to a journalist who wants to find out more about her work. Here she is interviewed by freelance science writer Munya Makoni (Photo: Theo-Charl Kieck)
"By communicating my work I hope to inspire other people, grow science in South Africa and reinforce the message that Africa has a role to play in the global science space," she enthuses. "I also want to dispel stereotypical ideas that science is a man's world and that scientists are boring!"
Inspired by her father's life story (from rural poverty to one of opportunities for himself and his children), she emphasises the moral responsibility of scientists to share their work. It is crucial to inspire young people about science, she says. "If I'm not able to reach them, and not able to use all the available means to do that, I feel that I have failed in my role as a communicating scientist."
She embraces all opportunities to communicate science that cross her path. Last year she spoke at a gentlemen's club to "an enthusiastic group of men with some older than 85" and a high tea for ladies keen to find out more about flowers and the health properties of botanicals.
She regularly talks to students and learners, and never says no to an opportunity to do a media interview. "These experiences make me think hard about my own science, and how to convince people that it is important work. They also help me generate new ideas about my research."
Speaking from past experience, she shares examples of how public engagement – whether in real life or online via social media – leads to more opportunities to engage (and sometimes even go viral!), as well as interest from journalists and funders. "But, this cannot happen if your information is locked up in scientific journals and is inaccessible to the people that are able to invest in science and develop new industries," she cautions.
Responding to audience questions about academic bosses who are reluctant to support public engagement and even discourage younger research staff from getting involved, she informs her audience with great confidence that the tide is turning and that public engagement will undeniably become an integral part of researchers' careers.
"This does not mean that every scientist has to be interviewed on live television," she assures them. "There are many avenues for engagement, and social media channels are opening up new opportunities and taking away the gatekeepers and barriers of the past. If you want to be part of the knowledge economy, it is crucial to keep the science message going, and to be able to use all the different communication platforms available."
Prof. Makunga has an impressive ability to rattle off some of the latest numbers on how the world, especially the youth, is increasingly connected via social media platforms. Her talks serve to remind young scientists about the power of social media to boost citations of academic articles. "So, if you're not on social media you are losing out on opportunities to be noticed in your field and network with other research leaders," she cautions.
Her own work is published in international journals and she serves in the editorial boards of several international journals. She served as the President of the Association of Botanists for three years.
In 2011, she was a recipient of the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) Annual Award in the category Distinguished Young Black Researcher (Female) – the TW Kambule NRF award for 2011/12.
"One of the highlights of my university career was being recognised by Stellenbosch University as an Outstanding Teacher," she says.
GetSETgo caught up with this passionate scientist and communicator to find out more about her current challenges and the things in life that excite her most:
Q: Tell us about your job at Stellenbosch University (SU):
I joined Stellenbosch University in 2005. My research focuses on the application of biotechnology to Cape medicinal flora. This work stems from my PhD study where I studied a plant with anticancer activity - Thapsia garganica.
During my tenure at Stellenbosch University I've supervised over 20 honours, 10 master's and three PhD students. My research team is currently composed of eight students at MSc and PhD levels. Research uses 'omics technologies where we try and understand plants from the genetic level through to their responses to the environment.
I have an interest in people-plant interactions, and so my research focuses on medicinal plants, their cultural significance and opportunities presented for socio-economic development.
Q: What did you do before joining SU? (Sketch career path)
I obtained a PhD in Plant Molecular Biology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2004. While I was doing the PhD, I was employed as a junior member of staff at the Research Centre for Plant Growth and Development. I was lecturing but also having fun teaching aerobics after hours to keep fit.
I tried by all means to keep away from Botany and I actually have a BSc in Biochemistry and Microbiology. However, the love for plants drew me in and I found myself in the Botany Department doing an honours degree. I was always fascinated by the functional biology and plants are really intricate and complex and truly fascinating.
Q: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a famous little town in the Eastern Cape – Alice. It is home to the University of Fort Hare. That particular university is historically important as it is deeply connected to educating many of our current political leaders in southern Africa. The beloved Nelson Mandela also found his way to Alice, as well as Archbishop Desmond Tutu at some stage in his life.
Q: What is your favourite dish?
Where do I start? I like all sorts of different types of foods. I suppose the best way to answer this is to say: my mama's very famous black cherry cheesecake pudding. Otherwise I will be in serious trouble if she ever gets to read this.
Q: Your favourite holiday destination, and why?
I love the predictability of being at home in Alice with my family and I always miss it as I was in Grade 5 when I was sent to boarding school. When it comes to travel out of SA, I have a secret love for Florence – so much charm.
Q: What keeps you busy when you're not at work?
Reading, drawing and painting, chasing sunsets, exploring vineyards and tasting wine, electro-swing, jazz funk, flower arranging, theatre (sometimes I find it hard to convince my friends to go with me to the ballet) and much more.
Q: Tell us about your family...
My dad, Oswald, was a Botanist and some say he may be the first Black Botanist in South Africa. He enjoyed a very long marriage with my mom, Nosisa. They had three kids and I think I may have been the 'oops' child.
My mother used to be a school principal, but now she runs a home business. Apart from making an amazing cheesecake, she is also known for having a wonderful garden around our neighbourhood.
My sister, Bongi Ledwaba, is a trained journalist and my brother, Vuyo, an engineer. They are older than me and have always been fairly overprotective of their younger sister. They are both married and my sister has two girls that are now at university. My niece, Lehlo, published her first article this year in her fourth year of engineering. Her sister, Hlumelo, studies jazz music and was able to sing before she could talk.
My mother has an incredible sense of humour and my brother always laughs at his own jokes before he has finished telling them. I am guaranteed to get lifted off my feet each time he gives me a hug. My nieces think that they have the best aunt because more often than not we like the same type of clothes.
I have an incredible extended family of highly accomplished people. The greatest thing about my family is being allowed to have so much freedom – to pursue my goals, dreams, without preconceived notions. We were always allowed to have choices as long as one understood that those came with responsibility. We all chose our careers without being dictated to in terms of what we should study. The only rule was: if you are spending someone else's money getting an education, you had better make a success of it.
Q: Hobbies? Pets?
I had a pond with fish, but the cat next door ate them all.
I sang in choir at school, I taught aerobics and am a qualified personal trainer and group trainer with over 15 years' experience. I am engaged in floristry outfit and create flower arrangements in my spare time. My first job of this nature was in 2004 for a friend's wedding.
I have a strong creative streak and so have quite a few hobbies that I previously mentioned.
Follow Prof. Makunga on Twitter @Noxthelion ("Makunga was the name of the 'big bad' lion in the movie Madagascar 2," she explains.)