Inspiring the next generation of African scientists – Sikhumbuzo Masina’s story

“From an African perspective, I believe it is vital to inspire young, up and coming scientists. If there is inspiration and collaboration, there is learning, and learning can be passed on. There has to be continuity if science and innovation is to flourish across our continent.”

Sikhumbuzo Masina

Sikhumbuzo Masina is a PhD student at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, investigating Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) electrolytes for alternative energy solutions in Africa and beyond. From humble beginnings as a shepherd in Swaziland, to a PhD student collaborating with the START community, Sikhumbuzo has reached the position he is in today through talent, persistence, and the inspiration of others.

Sikhumbuzo Masina from the University of the Witwatersrand.
Photo credit Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source

One of a group of Master’s, PhD students and post-docs who attended START’s Energy Materials workshop at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in December (2019), Sikhumbuzo is part of START’s ‘extended-family’ through his PhD supervisor and mentor, Professor Dave Billing.

For Sikhumbuzo, possibility is the seedbed for ingenuity and it is this, he explains, which drives his desire to reach out and inspire the next generation of science students. This is Sikhumbuzo Masina’s story in his own words.

Students and post docs at GCRF_START’s Energy Materials Workshop (15-17 Dec 2019) at the University of Cape Town. From left to right: Dr Wilson Mgodi, Mathias Kiefer, Sikhumbuzo Masina, Adam Schnier, Chris Mullins.
Photo Credit: Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source

Humble beginnings

I grew up with very few resources and life in Swaziland was very hard. My father passed away before I was born and my mother couldn’t fund my schooling. From the age of 12 years, I therefore had to work away from home as a shepherd to raise funds for school fees.

I was fortunate enough to work for kind people who took me into their family and encouraged me to go to school. From the money I earned in my spare time herding farm animals and assisting on the farm, I was able to fund my schooling until high school. 

School became too expensive, however, so the Priest at the local Catholic Church took responsibility and paid much of my school fees through a church fund to support youth; the rest was topped up by a government bursary. I am very grateful for this support.

Inspired to think big – my PhD dream!

I did very well in high school and found inspiration through my two ‘brothers’ in the family I was working for who had been to university. They were the people I looked up to and motivated me to work hard and have a vision for my future.

I would say to myself, “They wanted PhDs and I want to have a PhD too at some point in my life”. I did not even know what a PhD was! However, the fact that I saw and liked what they were doing was very important for me.

After I completed school, I took advantage of the Government’s study loan scheme for students because I couldn’t support myself. This paid for my tuition and accommodation, and meant I could do my first degree and finish it!

The importance of being a role model

Given that I have benefitted in a life-changing way from the inspiration and opportunities provided to me by others, I have a strong desire to devote time to outreach – it is something I always hunt for wherever I am. For example, before I came to Wits University for my PhD, I was a teacher which enabled me to save up money for my postgraduate studies.  This has given me helpful experience for outreach events and inspiring others.

When I was a teacher, I would also tutor children from the local SOS children’s village where the orphaned and vulnerable children stay, giving them tutorials in maths and science and teaching them life skills– I wanted to be a role model to them like the two brothers I looked up to as a child.

Raising awareness of synchrotron techniques and GCRF START

This experience I bring to the University’s ‘Whizz Bang’ group I am part of.  Whizz Bang involves postgraduate students from the School of Chemistry and promotes science through outreach events and also school visits to underprivileged schools around Johannesburg.

At our events, we demonstrate a variety of chemical experiments and use the START banners in our displays to raise awareness about the important influence of synchrotron techniques on African research, especially in terms of energy materials. This is also a good way to bring attention to the many opportunities provided by START.

Sikhumbuzo Masina with members of Professor Dave Billing’s research group participating in an Energy Materials outreach event at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. From left to right: Dr Caren Billing, Lesego Gaolatlhe , Adewale Ipadeola, Sikhumbuzo Masina, Adam Shnier.
Photo Credit: Dave Billing

Investing in future African scientists, research and innovation

I believe strongly that you have to invest in science and scientists for the long-haul. If you train people and then stop investing in training and research, people lose trust and hope, and may give up. Continuity and sustainability is also lost in terms of research programmes.

I think it is vital to get people across Africa on board with GCRF START, including from smaller countries like Swaziland, Namibia and others. We need to establish links and collaborations at every level and run workshops and training. Yes, we don’t always have the instruments needed to get the preliminary data for applying for synchrotron beam time at world-class facilities like the UK’s Diamond Light Source but even collaborating with scientists from these places through a network like START can open up exciting avenues to grow, access equipment and develop the expertise to get the necessary data.

Professor Dave Billings from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, speaking at the GCRF_START’s Energy Materials Workshop at the University of Cape Town (15-17 Dec 2019).
Photo Credit Rebekka Stredwick. © Diamond Light Source

A continuous, sustainable learning cycle

My own case demonstrates that if there is inspiration and collaboration, there is learning, and learning can be passed on! Even if students like me move elsewhere, we will stay connected because it is an ongoing collaboration we are part of. When I go back home to Swaziland, I carry on with my tutoring. I know it is time-consuming but I feel a responsibility to share my knowledge to inspire the next wave and the next wave of students, so that it is a continuous, sustainable learning cycle.

Sikhumbuzo Masina at the University of a Witwatersrand energy materials outreach event. Photo credit Dave Billing

How to join and collaborate with GCRF START

START exerts its influence beyond the students and scientists that it directly funds, inspiring the next cohort of PhD and Postdoctoral students, developing their knowledge and skills, and enabling collaboration that can last a lifetime.

For more information about collaborating with, or joining the START programme contact the START Project Coordinator at: GCRF_START@diamond.ac.uk