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FALF's inaugural research symposium showcases work by women scientists

- Wits University

Clearing the path for talented female academics and researchers leads to more relevant research.

Drs Prudence Ditlopo and Busisiwe Maseko winners of the FALF Pod Spirit Award

Six research papers focusing on a range of subjects including the link between hypertension and autism to childhood cancers, diabetes in the black population, vitiligo in Africans, TB treatments and mosquitoes, were showcased at the first Female Academic Leaders Fellowship (FALF) research symposium held on 28 October 2022.

The symposium celebrated the FALF fellows – female academics and scientists who have completed research papers and thereby advanced teaching and learning since becoming FALF fellows.

FALF advocates and provides financial support to African and mixed-race South African women. The main objective is to transform the racial and gender profile of academic leadersand also transform knowledge production and promote inclusion and equity.

Giving the opening remarks at the symposium, Professor Salome Maswime, Head of Global Surgery at the University of Cape Town and a FALF Board member, highlighted the challenges facing women and the significance of the FALF and milestones.

“We live in a country where women of colour are least represented in the professoriate as Deans, Deputy-Vice Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors. Women in senior positons face unique challenges, which can be challenging and damaging for those who want to follow in their footsteps. The inequities that women face on the African continent are many and can and should be addressed through research.”

To underscore the need for more women in academia, Maswime made reference to a research paper published by her team which found that African women undergoing surgery were twice more likely to die from surgical complications than women in high-income countries.

Maswime argued that some topics and communities will not be prioritised in research and “it takes those of us from there to go back and do the research.”

Without targeted transformation programmes that promote diversity in research, essential data cannot be generated.

“Without data we are not able to quantify or qualify the extent of the challenges that women face. We are not able to make evidence-based and context-specific recommendations for policy reform and change in real practice.  Most importantly, we are not able to pilot interventions and measure the impact of our innovations.”

Without women scientists, the world is less likely to investigate the inequities and disparities that are unique to women. Without diversity and representation amongst researchers, certain communities might never be represented. It takes those of us who come from the affected communities to  go back and research where it is most needed.”

FALF founder and Wits Chancellor Dr Judy Dlamini, a medical professional and respected business leader, acknowledged the contribution of existing programmes at the University aimed at diversity and inclusion. 

“FALF is a continuation of the multipronged approach to transformation and inclusion” she said, however, the programme uses an “intersectional lens that recognises that some of us have multiple social attributes of disadvantage, especially gender and race,” said Dlamini.

2022 FALF Symposium and Awards

Fellows build as they rise

“FALF seeks to develop a pipeline of African women academic leaders who will identify and solve problems that are relevant to our context, nationally and globally – leaders that will lead with integrity and lift as they rise,” said Dlamini.

Launched in 2021, the FALF programme has assisted 46 women in the two years since its inception. This is a big achievement, as programmes of this nature require substantial funding to ensure continuity and real impact.

“With more funding, more qualifying women leaders will benefit” and this will hopefully lead to the establishment of research chairs that will focus on addressing the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals especially SGDs 5, 10 and 13, said Dlamini. These focus on gender equality, reduced inequality and climate change, respectively.

Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Zeblon Vilakazi commended FALF’s achievements adding that “this is a wonderful development in a University of firsts.”

Wits has achieved many firsts,  such as developing the country’s first radar, nuclear accelerator, and the world’s first living donor liver transplant from an HIV positive mother to her HIV negative child. Wits was the first to award a PhD to a black African, Dr Benedict Vilakazi, the first to produce a black female medical graduate, and the first to produce a female mining engineer – a series of small steps but giant leaps.

Adding his voice to the need for diverse teams, Vilakazi cited artificial intelligence and drug delivery as some of the areas where researchers tend to produce for their own and inadvertently exclude millions of people from benefiting from technology and scientific advances.

Excellence, diversity, and inclusion as part of the same strand of the double helix that forms part of the Wits DNA said Vilakazi.

“The challenges that we face cannot be solved in a unimode,” he said.

Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, former Executive Director of UN Women and Chancellor at the University of Johannesburg also addressed attendees via video. She spoke on the topic Women and Research Leadership: Transforming Knowledge Locally and Globally. Director General at the Department of Science and Innovation Dr Phil Mjwara delivered a speech on behalf of the Minister, titled The Importance of Women’s Participation in Research and Leadership within Academia.

Symposium attendees also heard about a cross institutional research project primarily driven by academics at the University of Johannesburg and Wits. Nonjabulabuchopho, new project under FALF, is working on two projects around gender-based violence.  The first project is titled Gender-based Violence and Femicide in South African Universities: Prevalence, Experiences and Policies and the second targets broader society and is titled Developing a community based activism initiative to combat GBVF and harmful use of alcohol.

Excellence Awards

In keeping with the goal to recognise outstanding work, five awards were presented at the symposium and each received R10 000.


Research Excellence Award: Professor Palesa Motshabi Chakane, Academic Head, Department of Anaesthesiology

FALF Leadership Award: Dr Ida Risenga, School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences

FALF CSI Award: Dr Thama Duba, School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics

FALF Individual Spirit Award: Dr Dineo Mpanya, cardiologist and specialist in Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging

FALF Pod Spirit Award

Dr Prudence Ditlopo

Dr Busisiwe Maseko

Professor Veronica Ntsiea

The team is a multidisciplinary team that is working on research on autism and community awareness on the subject.

Read more about the winners in future stories.