Professor Isabelle Ansorge is one of the most influential women in the world of science. This dynamic Professor heads the Oceanography department at the University of Cape Town. Isabelle was the very first woman Ph.D. graduate in the department. The extraordinary woman scientist’s areas of interest include Indian, Atlantic and Southern Ocean dynamics, Southern Ocean eddy transports of heat and salt, frontal dynamics and variability in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and its effects on Subantarctic Islands, the Agulhas Current, ARGO, Training of undergraduate and postgraduate students at sea. She is a powerhouse and I had to sit down with her and hear how she became this successful in such a male-dominated field.
Isabelle Ansorge was born 48 years ago in England to German parents who moved to England in 1960. They loved England so much that they never left and in 1969 their daughter, Isabelle was born. Isabelle grew up wanting to be a veterinary and her father knew a Polish captain of an old Polish sailing vessel. The captain and the vessel had an experiment to take school kids out of school, take them around Africa for a year’s school education. But it was during the Cold War and Poland and Russia had no access to currency and so the captain approached people that he knew and offered $2 a day for them to put their children on board. Isabelle was not so keen on going and she remembers crying her eyes out, but her father insisted she goes. They agreed that if she did not like it, then little Isabelle would get off at the next stop which would be Lisbon Portugal. She hopped on and onboard, was not one of the school kids, but she was part of the navigation, assisted the teachers, did sample collecting and looking under microscopes. In about 6 months the ship stopped in Cape Town and that is when she decided that she wanted to do oceanography. She went to Plymouth Polytechnic, now known as Plymouth University, to study marine studies and graduated with a 2:1 (upper 2) in the year 1991. In 1993 she moved to South Africa, arriving just a week after Chris Hani was killed. This was after Isabelle, in that same year had decided to write a letter to Johan Luchahams seek employment and was prepared to fly to South Africa if she was offered a position. Johan gave her back the letter just before he died.
Professor Ansorge has a very broad understanding of oceanography even though she is not a mathematician or an ocean modeller. Her interests at university involved very hands-on work and her biggest strengths generally lie in how she ceases opportunities, make the most of them and mould herself into what is needed for the specific opportunity. Isabelle, for example, is very interested in Subantarctic work and has focused all her attention on understanding Subantarctic oceanography. She knew nothing about the region but wanted to work on discovering its secrets. Prof, therefore, identified the opportunities, took the initiative and today has published several papers about the region in prominent journals. SEAmester is another example which came about through her identifying opportunity and deciding to make it happen. This program, established in 2016, was a result of her experiences when she was 14 years old. The program is aimed at postgraduates students in the Science field. The objective of the cruise is to encourage interaction between young South African scientists, lecturers and field specialists in a hands-on, practical environment on board the R/V SA Agulhas II. There are 25 lecturers that go on the course and I must say, students love it to bits! Isabelle is working towards making SEAmester a badge of honour for going to sea, whereby when one goes on a SEAmester course, they can be endorsed to go on any other cruise.
She, for many years in the UCT Oceanography Department, had been the only female staff member and she admits that being in a male-dominated workplace was not easy at all. She had days when she really questioned herself about whether she really wanted the position or not because it was tough at times. However, Professor Ansorge is HoD now and has managed to turn the department around by making it more gender diverse, with more women scientists joining (both lecturers and students). She believes that the science world needs a new modern approach that is inclusive of women because we can multitask and are very good at what we do because, in the past, she had a rather tough time as a female scientist. Thankfully she is very thick skinned!
Isabelle’s message to the world is that we need to fear nothing and no one. If you see an opportunity, no one will go and find you and therefore the onus is on you to take the initiative and go grab it. Make the most of every opportunity that you get and do not be afraid of rejection. Get up, dust yourself off and ride again, she advised.
All photos by Kolisa Yola Sinyanya