Meet Sandra Phoma an inspirational #blackwomanscientist

Sandra Boitumelo Phoma is a final year Ph.D. candidate at the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics (CMEG), University of Pretoria (UP), currently working on surveying the microbial diversity and function in the Southern Ocean. The research involves analyses of the 16S rRNA, metagenomes, meta proteomes and metabolomes datasets generated from sampling trips on board the Agulhas II research vessel. Results of her study will shed light on the role microbes play in mediating biogeochemical cycles in response to climate change. Sandy was born in Mabopane, Pretoria South in the Gauteng Province of South Africa. As a young ambitious girl growing up in Mafikeng- South Africa, Sandra had the drive to study medicine because from her background and in her society that particular path was the ultimate career choice of hope where one helps people and simultaneously earns large sums of money.  Soon to be Dr Phoma started out small at North West University, studying a BSc, majoring in Biology and Chemistry. While busy with her Honours degree she had the convincing admiration of Plant Biotechnology and Proteomics through a project that focused on drought stress, examining the genes of Arabidopsis plants which in her experiments flourished successfully in drought conditions. Sandra was both intrigued and overly excited by her discoveries. As the thinker she is, it was inevitable for her not to hypothetically apply her project on a wider scale, where the scientific applications could be used in African countries.

One day, a UP professor, Professor Don Cowan had visited North West University to give a talk. Phoma attended his talk and approached the Professor to shower him with compliments and remind him of how interesting the work him and his group are conducting is. The group works on metagenomics, microbial ecology and the Namib desert. Due to her overflowing interest in extreme environment sciences, Sandra saw this as a great opportunity to join the group and work on biotechnological work that in her mind, would involve enzymes, and of course, the thought of it all was immensely exhilarating.  She joined the team and soon discovered that there were no topics that stroked her particular interests. Instead, for her MSc at UP, Sandra had to change her choices to fungal biotechnology which she did not necessarily enjoy. Her Master’s work which focused on the design of a new host-vector system for high-level protein expression in filamentous fungi was filled with long hours of sequencing and she was willing to quit! Sandra got a job offer which allowed her to work part-time in the Microbiology Department at UP while completing her MSc. After that year of working and successful completion of the Master’s degree, she received good news from her team UP and they had a Ph.D. offer for her to work on the Southern Ocean which she had previously mentioned to have an interest in, to her supervisor. She was given an opportunity to pitch what she planned to work on and the proposal was accepted.

Sandy on the SA Agulhas II at the Cape Town Harbour

Her work is primarily a micro scale of what is happening in the Southern Ocean and what drives those occurrences. Sandy hopes, with her work, to attract more people to the “revolving door” that is science. Especially to inspire and empower multitudes of young women as a mentor and role model, passing on the baton because so many people have more ideas and findings to add to what is already known. Sandra loves the science world because it allows her to interact with so many bright individuals from all walks of life, one gets to travel extensively and experience new cultures, learn new ways of doing science. However, the being away from family for extended periods of time, the sacrifices scientists make are very strenuous and one’s life moves differently. For example, relationships are tainted because we have to spend so much time in the laboratory, friends get married and start families and we, in the science world have degrees, until after that red gown, of course (we laughed out loud as we both relate)! We also shared a moment when Sandra pointed out the woman and for us, black women discrimination in our career paths. Whereby just by being a female and additionally being black, has the majority of the people you meet automatically concluding that you are a “quota deployee” and are not even slightly deserving of the position you hold. Encountering comments that include, “For a black woman you are doing so well.”, “You are smart for a black girl.”, but a black man is doing well regardless of where he is. Moreover, Sandra clarifies that in the beginning, amongst other reasons, she joined science because she thought scientists are open minded, progressive professionals and there is very little if any discrimination at all in that sphere of careers. I must admit that Sandra and I shared this very sentiment as well, but we were, in our own separate and shared experiences shocked to discover that in science there are all forms of gender and racial discriminations that deter the open-mindedness we initially fantasised about. With all those obstacles in her path, she is most proud of the boundaries she and other women scientists break! She enjoys walking away from conversations with the satisfaction that “I changed your mind!”. The other party gets to look at black women differently, a woman scientist and finally, as a woman you get to pat yourself on the shoulder, recalling the hurdles you have to fight through with a brave heart and tough skin to be where you are today.

Sandy’s plans after Ph.D. are to continue with her research work, moving up to run her own lab with other researchers and young scientists. She dreams of becoming a Primary Investigator for one of the groundbreaking studies that are always addressing novel questions in the field, she thinks owning a centre of excellence for ocean discoveries is not such a shabby idea. Her advice to all who would love to follow her path is, “Know what you are good at and run with it and don’t try to be anyone else because when you try to emulate you might lose the plot.”.



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