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Women in science

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Alumni Prof Lyn Wadley and Dr Nicole de Wet have received South African Women in Science awards.

Prof Lyn Wadley (PhD 1987) and Dr Nicole de Wet (BA 2007, BA Hons 2008, MA 2009, PhD 2013) have received South African Women in Science awards in the Humanities and Social Sciences category. The awards are made by the Department of Science and Technology.

Prof Lyn Wadley is a leader in the field of cognitive archaeology – studying the mental abilities of our ancient human forebears.  Recently she has been looking into the possibility that plant medicines were used many thousands of years ago.

“I am delighted to receive the award because it draws attention to archaeology and brings recognition to the discipline,” says Prof Wadley. “The acknowledgement will hopefully be an encouragement to young scientists to study archaeology at Wits and spread the word about the incredible heritage that we have in this country.”

She says there is no ceiling for women in science. “There are funding opportunities and first-rate support systems. There has been huge progress regarding attitudes to women working in scientific fields.  To a large extent the credit for this must go to the efforts of the Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation and institutions like Wits.”

Prof Wadley has been excavating Border Cave (on the border of KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland) with archaeological collaborators from Wits and the University of Bordeaux. “The site shows signs of occupation from close to 200 000 years ago to about 40 000 years ago. There is excellent organic preservation in the cave and I am particularly interested in the plant remains because there may be evidence of really early use of plant medicines. Early knowledge about medicines links to other work I have done coupling everyday hunter-gather tasks to attributes of complex cognition that suggest minds like our own (for example the ability to multi-task, think abstractly, draw analogies and plan for remote action). Working with Dr Christine Sievers (Wits Archaeology), I have been collecting modern plants that occur in the area of the cave and have charred them to resemble the remains found archaeologically. In order to identify the ancient plants it is necessary to compare their anatomy with that of modern plants. We are doing this microscopically.”

Dr Nicole de Wet is a population studies expert who has been working on the demographic and socioeconomic determinants of adolescent health outcomes in South Africa.

“Issues such as adolescent maternal mortality, risky sexual behaviours and mental health outcomes such as depression have been the main focal points of my 2016 research agenda,” she says.

“To be given the first runner-up award in the Distinguished Young Women category for the Humanities and Social Sciences has been a wonderful privilege for me. I feel honoured to have been considered among such amazing female academics. I feel that South Africa is making huge strides in empowering women in science. There are numerous opportunities made available to young women who wish to pursue academic careers.

“Personally, I feel inspired by the work of other women in science and I feel rather excited when my students tell me that I have inspired them to follow their dreams. Because to me, this is the essence of being in science and being a woman in science: it is the ability to learn, grow, contribute and encourage others.

“As a true Witsie, having completed all my degrees at Wits and now being a member of the academic staff, I feel that the culture, environment and goals of the University have contributed greatly to my career mind-set and achievements. The University supports young academics and women in science and I honestly attribute my success to what I learnt as a student here and hope to be able to support the current students of the University in the way I was supported and encouraged.”

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