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Sandile Mtetwa - Zimbabwean

Ph.D. student in the Yusuf Hamied Chemistry Department at the University of Cambridge

Sandile is a Ph.D. student in the Yusuf Hamied Chemistry Department at the University of Cambridge. She is also a Gates-Cambridge Scholar and NanoDTC associate. Her research project is on charge-carrying metal-organic frameworks and their potential applications in catalysis and sensing. Her motivation in STEM is climate change mitigation through researching and implementing clean and renewable energy systems. She is passionate about knowledge and skill set transfer between the diaspora and Africa in areas of social enterprise; hence her involvement as co-founder and Chair of Africans in STEM.

WiredUp had a Q & A interview session with Sandile Mtetwa a Ph.D. student in the Yusuf Hamied Chemistry Department at the University of Cambridge

Who is Sandile Mtetwa; what is your background?

I am a research scientist by training, with a BSc Honors and MPhil in Chemistry. I am currently in my final year of a Ph.D. in Chemistry at the University of Cambridge. My research interests are renewable and clean energy with my thesis focusing on hydrogen evolution systems. I am also interested in energy transition and sustainability – the different technologies, economics, and policies that surround this.

As a Ph.D. student and Gates-Cambridge Scholar, and someone who is passionate about future interests in STEM enterprise, science advisory, and policy reform/framework, what are you aiming for and why?

Providing a clean and reliable means of energy for low-income communities is what drives me. I aim to contribute in some way to the energy security of millions of people in Africa. Currently, according to IEA, 770 million people in Africa have no access to electricity and there are frequent power cuts in many countries. With the inevitable population growth, the need for industries to evolve and expand, and the climate change crisis – reliable, low-cost, clean energy is imperative. Whether I am able to execute that through innovative technology in the form of being part of entrepreneurial activities, providing consultancy services through my scientific knowledge and background, or influencing favourable policies for Africa, I want to be involved in any way I can.

What achievement are you most proud of?

It’s difficult to pick one. I would say completing my Ph.D. will become a highlight of my career. As a side note, I want to mention my resilience as something I am proud to have, although it is not a material thing. You have got to have resilience. The ability to be presented with a setback but come out stronger is an achievement in my books.

Being someone with a strong passion for building linkages between the diaspora and STEMinists in Africa and who likes to be involved in projects that advance STEM and enterprise in Africa, what challenges have you encountered on your journey in the field of STEM, and how have you overcome some of these challenges?

I will speak to this broadly and say underrepresentation is an issue. Underrepresentation touches academia, industry, enterprise, and globally, really. I think people of African/Afro-Caribbean descent are still vastly lacking at important tables and this trickles down to the decisions that are made on our behalf. If our voices are not represented our problems cannot be solved. One of the most effective solutions for this is building networks for Africa by Africans. Should it be African-based investment funds for projects that help continental growth or more effective decision-making platforms on the scale of the AU. I know there are efforts being made in this area which are commendable. In academia, it’s also making visible African individuals in STEM who are doing really good research and breaking ground in their respective areas. For this reason, I am involved as co-founder of Africans in STEM, which aims to highlight scientific (research/enterprise) advancements made by Africans in STEM all over the world.

How do you think we can start to get more African children exposed to STEM?

I think it is through the in-class curriculum and through extra-curricular activities. In Zimbabwe, for example, there has been progress towards incorporating more practical science in the curriculum, which is good, but there has to be follow-through beyond the classroom as there is so little time spent there, anyway. STEM is all around us and children learn more if they are taught about STEM in less formal environments. I have a very good colleague of mine (Knowledge Chikundi) who is the Director of the Zimbabwe Science Fair and the kind of programmes that he has curated has allowed more children to appreciate that STEM can be learnt outside of the classroom in a fun and exciting way, which really helps engage them more and become innovative. I would encourage children who show interest in STEM to be involved in such programmes.

What is your message to upcoming young Africans about STEM?

The internet is your friend (for those that are fortunate to have access to it). Most of the information that you will need is widely available there. Look for that information and apply for opportunities that will help you move toward the next step in your career journey. Also, build necessary and effective networks that can help you progress; ask those questions; be inquisitive, but also have the drive to follow through on your ideas. I’ve had a lot of people ask me about funding/scholarship opportunities to study abroad but one thing I’ve seen is the lack of initiative to identify these opportunities themselves and wanting me to give them information that is widely available on the web. No one will initiate the process of what you want to achieve; you need to do it! Just find the right people who will guide you through the path you have mapped out.

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