The lack of women in science has been hotly discussed and debated over the decades due to low participation of women and particularly young girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
According to the Academy of Science of South Africa, women in Africa only account for 10% of STEM academia. This shocking reality did not deter Thuthukile Khumalo from pursuing her studies in physics.
Originally from the city of gold, Khumalo’s family later settled in Umzinto in the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal where she eventually matriculated from Sihle High School in 2011.
This bubbly young scientist has always been curious about the world around her and knew she wanted to pursue a degree which would match her passion. After reading about her role model, the renowned Marie Curie, Khumalo knew she wanted to become a physicist.
The following year, she enrolled towards a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree for Mathematics and Physics which later changed to BSc in Chemistry and Physics at the University of Zululand (UNIZULU). She was awarded her undergraduate degree in 2017 and achieved distinction with her Honours degree which was awarded earlier this year. Currently, she is completing her Master’s degree in Physics at UNIZULU in partnership with the University of Western Cape and iThemba LABS.
As part of her endeavours to excel in her field, Khumalo recently participated in the 63rd annual South African Institute of Physics (SAIP) conference held in Bloemfontein. She was in the midst of attendees from across South Africa and surrounding countries such as Botswana who had been invited to present their postgraduate research.
Though a novice, Khumalo said she the experience to be empowering. She presented her Master’s project, entitled Low Pressure Focal Plane Detectors for the K600: A design study, in the Nuclear Particle and Radiation category. Her unique topic and the sound physics behind the project impressed the judges, seeing her receiving a merit certificate including a monetary token of achievement.
“There is a device known as the K600 at iThemba LABS research facility in Cape Town. This is a magnetic spectrometer which is used to study particles based on their properties thus giving an insight into fields such as Nuclear and Astrophysics. This device has detectors that detect the particles that are being studied…This in essence, is what my MSc study is focusing on,” explained Khumalo whose work focuses primarily on the conceptual design aspect of new detectors that could allow scientists in this field to study particles with the K600 which has never been studied.
Although elated at winning, Khumalo measures her accomplishments one teaspoon at a time. She believes that it is vital for postgraduates to participate in conferences because it keeps one up to date with research practices while providing a platform for networking and development.
Acutely aware of the current scarcity of women in science, Khumalo said this only pushes her to persevere in her studies in order to make a significant contribution to the field of particle physics with the K600 magnetic spectrometer.
– Hlumelo Nyikana
Thuthukile Khumalo, Physics Master’s student at UNIZULU.