To commemorate National Science Week and National Women’s Month, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science is honouring its female scientists through a Wonder Women in Science campaign.

The women are described as passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are making waves in the field of science.

One of those “Wonder Women” is Professor Annegret Stark, who inherited her love for science from her father.

Stark says she remembers spending time with her family exploring nature over weekends. ‘My father, who was also a scientist, took us on hiking trips where we would discover 200-year-old trees, crabs in alpine lakes and things that washed up on the beach. His engaging discussions made hours of exploration pass quickly,’ she said.

During school, Stark had many diverse interests and considered studying architecture and music but realised there were relatively few job opportunities in those fields. ‘However, I decided on Chemistry because it helps you understand the essence of life and allows you to make new discoveries. Plus it offers exciting job opportunities,’ she said.

Stark, a lecturer and researcher in the Discipline of Chemical Engineering, says one of the biggest problems she has experienced in her career is trying to bridge the gap between education, research and innovation. These issues however motivate, rather than deter her spirit. ‘It is because of these challenges that I love my job. Every day there is something new to discover,’ she said.

One of the ways she is tackling the challenges is through an outreach programme. Together with Professor Anja Philipp of UKZN’s School of Education, she plans to launch a science-based initiative for high school pupils in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal. ‘We will hopefully be able to attract a number of promising persons to the University and provide financial or mentoring support during their studies,’ she said.

Stark says the benefits of the initiative will be multi-fold: science support for rural schools, communication of science-related content in communities, facilitation of access to tertiary education, and bioeconomy education and innovation.

Along with her research team, Stark is investigating the use of biomass (sugarcane) for various applications within a South African context. Biomass can be used to make chemicals, fuels and materials that result in products for everyday needs. ‘We work together with many collaborators from chemistry, biochemistry, chemical engineering, economics and agriculture. Together, we hope that we will be able to support the shift from a fossil-based to a biomass-based economy in South Africa,’ she said.

Stark was recently awarded the prestigious SMRI/NRF South African Research Chair position in Sugarcane Biorefining. A research chair’s role is to strengthen and improve the research and innovation capacity of a university by producing top postgraduate students and research outputs. She considers this to be one of her greatest achievements in her career.

Supporting people to become the best that they can be is how she interprets UKZN’s “Inspiring Greatness”tagline.

Stark acknowledges the following people who have supported her throughout her life: ‘My parents who always believed in me. My partner who supports me and helps me put things into perspective. Friends who share a bottle of good wine and a good laugh. Collaboration partners who look beyond their research expertise, students who go out of their way to make it happen and my previous supervisors. A big thank you to you all.’

Stark believes that to help develop more female scientists, the way boys and girls are raised needs to be changed. ‘Girls are not introduced to scientific content the same way boys are. We teach boys how to fix a bicycle tyre while dad will fix it for the girl. Because the sciences are difficult, we tend to support boys to take up the challenge or believe that they can do it,’ she said.

Stark also calls for more diversity in science for all under-represented groups. ‘Diversity in terms of gender, disability, culture, religion, ethnicity, and national and educational background is key to success wherever people work together.’

Part of the problem, she says, lies with how children are educated. Stark believes there is a need to strengthen basic science education by implementing novel teaching and learning methods from an early age. ‘We fail to communicate how exciting and fulfilling a career in science is. We need to nurture this natural curiosity to lead to life-long learning.’

Her advice to budding scientists is: ‘Yes you can! So don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.’

Stark, who aims to further strengthen bioeconomy and biorefinery research activities at UKZN, is busy with several exciting research and development projects she hopes will be developed into industrial solutions.

Stark is a Wonder Women in Science that UKZN is proud to claim as its own!

* In August, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science will present articles on some of its Wonder Women in Science.

To read all the articles, visit: wwis.ukzn.ac.za

Words: Sashlin Girraj