My type of science: Plants and DNA

“Why are some plants able to withstand long periods of drought? What is in their DNA?”  Pelly Malebe, a biotechnologist in South Africa has found answers to these questions through her research. She is the outgoing Next Einstein Forum ambassador for South Africa, and works closely with other scientists all over Africa to expose young people to science and technology. Her advise to young scientists? “Listen a little bit harder to yourself.”

What led to your interest in Biotechnology? Biotechnology was introduced to me in varsity. I wasn’t exposed to it in high school and I think that is a disservice in our community because we do not expose children in primary and high school to other careers! From a very young age, I was interested in finding out how biological things work, both humans and plants. I wanted to know why we look the way we do and why people differ in certain things yet appear the same in other features. I found the answer to that lay in DNA, during the biology class. I just felt the need to learn more and that is how I leaned towards biotechnology.

Are you currently working in industry? I am a sales specialist for a scientific solutions distribution company. I work with various labs, research institutes, universities and government laboratories and forensic labs. We supply the reagents and we give support within the lab in terms of providing research solutions.

Pelly in the lab

What is your current research area? My study is in genetics. We are currently in a state of severe drought in Cape Town. Some plants are able to withstand drought while others die out. My study looks at what genes within the DNA of the tea plant allows it to survive and how can we able to select for that gene in future for food security purposes. I have patented a method of screening for tree plants that have that DNA marker and allows them to withstand drought.

Research in Africa is one of the areas of under-representation of women in Africa. What is your opinion from South Africa? South Africa does promote women in science through various funding bodies including the Department of Science and Technology. In the lab, within the working or study level, I have seen an increase in women. Howver, within the professorship level, the faces there are still your all-boys club. Even when you attend conferences, majority of the panelists are usually men. So I think that we can increase the visibility there. I believe that there are women who are deserving of specific titles within our universities. We are fully capable. Those spaces can be filled.

We just celebrated International Day of Women and Girls, what do you think are the challenges for getting girls in STEM and what is should we do to boost the numbers? Within the rural schools, there is lack of exposure. There is lack of infrastructure such as laboratories, so there is no show and tell. It is all by mouth. There is a lack of technology such as tablets and computers. We lose a lot of good talent that way. In the cities, some people may just be intimidated by the term science and think that they have to be A+ students to be in that field.  Girls may have a knack for puzzles or a passion for fixing things which is an engineering mind, but they don’t tap into it because culture classifies it as a gender specific career. I think we should go to our communities. It is as simple as giving talks. You don’t know whose ears you reach or whose mind you spark. I have connected with a lot of girls who have found motivation when they hadn’t before. I think going back to the community and just talking to them is important. At a continental level, we should give more exposure to the kinds of platforms that focus on scientific communications as well as women in science.

You have just completed your term as the Next Einstein Forum ambassador. What was your greatest achievement? The NEF is of the idea that the next Einstein or the next great mind in science is within Africa. The NEF is a great initiative, where representatives from all 54 countries come together and look at how to develop Africa. The first is to define what development is for every one of us and solving African problems through African research. Going beyond my countries borders and working as a solid initiative has been wonderful to be a part of. My proudest moment was the NEF Africa Science Week that involved 13 countries. We were promoting STEM within different regions in our countries. Each ambassador was tasked with leading within their country and spreading science awareness. It started off with 13 countries but in 2018, it will include 30 countries. Eventually, it should include all 54 countries.

You use social media as a tool for mentorship and promoting science as an ambassador. Tell us about its usefulness. It has been a great platform for communication for the girls that I mentor. I am able to reach out to them and check in on how their studies are going. We are always just a message away, which has been wonderful. It has also been useful in getting out scientific communication, not just my own research but even other areas of interest. I am also able to share scholarship and bursary calls. Technology has been improving and it is a great way to solve many problems. For example, universities have opened up for online applications. I, at first, thought this was limiting because not everyone has a computer. However, the students I have been speaking to say that they are able to buy data and borrow a smart phone to fill in the applications!

What is your favorite quote/mantra? Always remain grateful, a grateful heart is a magnet for miracles. Be appreciative for every small thing.

What do you do to relax? I am a new mom, being a mom is my new hobby. I have become a morning person, my son wakes up early and he is just smiles, so my day starts early and it starts with a smile. It has given a new definition in my life to what being a woman is.

Balancing work and family, any helpful notes? When my son was first born, I started to worry that I would have to sacrifice my career goals throughout my life. But he is a little older now and I have managed to find a balance. I have realized that for me to lead a happy life, I have to find a balance between my goals and my family. I can’t sacrifice one or the other because I think I will be a good mum if I am happy. Getting assistance from other women in my life such as my mother-in-law helps to achieve that balance. As a woman, you learn to adapt without sacrificing your goals and dreams. Raising a happy child is now one of my goals.

Parting shot? Women have intuition and instincts. Just listen a little bit harder to yourself. Look at life situations as a crossroads. Are you happy right now? If yes, continue straight. If no, look left, look right, what are your options? When I finished my master’s degree and I didn’t know where to go, get a job or continue studying. At that crossroad, I kept going straight and continued to study further. Later, I wasn’t happy anymore, so I felt I should turn. I took the job as a sales specialist and had my son.

Find Pelly Malebe on Twitter.

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