26 October 2012 – L’Oréal and Unescorecently announced the winners of the 2012 L’Oréal-Unesco regional fellowships for women in science (FWIS) in sub-Saharan Africa. For the second consecutive year, 10 women scientists from across sub-Saharan Africa were honoured for their work in the scientific field and awarded fellowships of US$20,000 to put towards their PhD research.

One of these was Gcineka Mbambisa from South Africa. Her PhD research focuses on the production and characterisation of composite polymeric materials and nanoalloys in terms of their application in the construction of hybrid solar cells (photovoltaic devices).

“My research is informed by the current global energy crisis. Existing energy supplies, which are mainly derived from non-renewable fuels, are not able to satisfy demand and as such, more renewable forms of energy are being explored. In Africa, the main focus is on solar energy and investigating ways to cut the costs of solar energy supply,” she says.

“One way of reducing these costs is using cheaper photovoltaic materials, hence my research exploring the use of organic compounds as photovoltaic materials. Polymers will be used in conjunction with nanomaterials to try to avoid the side reactions that normally result in the poor efficiency of organic photovoltaic materials. Against this backdrop, the overall goal of my research is to develop highly efficient photovoltaic materials at a very low cost, in an effort to make solar energy accessible to communities across Africa.”

Mbambisa hails from Mthatha, Eastern Cape, South Africa, where she was raised as one of seven children by her housewife mother and retired father, who took early pension when she was completing Grade 5. She faced a string of challenges from this point in her life, including losing her mother in her first year of high school; developing a debilitating skin disorder, alopecia areata, in Grade 11 that caused untold emotional stress; and losing a brother that same year.

After matriculating, Gcineka was faced with a tough decision – she wanted to pursue tertiary studies but was cognisant of the financial burden this would place on the family of eight that was already supported only by a pensioner’s income.

“Tertiary education seemed like a mirage, a situation made more daunting by the fact that I had no access to information on financial assistance. My initial hesitation in applying for tertiary education dissolved when I realised these facts of life; failure, like success, saps energy and passion; it is the individual mental culture that makes the difference; and problems thrive and multiply when they are treated as prohibitive obstacles. In the course of searching for a way out I got a government loan that saw me through my undergraduate studies at Rhodes University from 2003 to 2005,” Gcineka explains.

During this time, Gcineka lost her father. This put a stop to the meagre stipend from home and Gcineka was forced to cut back, even on necessities, just to finish her studies. She managed to complete her honours and masters of science degrees in the years that followed, eventually pursuing her PhD in chemistry at the University of the Western Cape. “Learning and research came with a strong sense of fulfilment, and pursuing my PhD seemed to make little sense to anyone but me in the face of such financial constraints. But I believed in the idea, even when the reality was a financial nightmare,” Gcineka says.

Among others, Gcineka hopes winning an L’Oréal Unesco fellowship will provide her a platform to share her inspiring testimony with fellow women who, in the face of similar adversities, might otherwise never follow their dreams.