Scientist, lecturer and researcher: Department of physics, University of Johannesburg

Buyisiwe Sondezi-Mhlungu

As an award-winning scientist, researcher and lecturer in the department of physics at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Buyisiwe Sondezi-Mhlungu hasn’t let anything stop her from breaking through the glass ceiling as a woman in science or pushing the boundaries of pioneering research. Plus, disproving the assumption that it’s impossible for women to combine the highest levels of scientific achievement with raising a family, she’s also the proud mother of two.

Currently completing her PhD in physics at UJ, Sondezi-Mhlungu is studying quantum-critical phenomena of cerium-based compounds and the magnetic field dependence of physical properties in these and other intermetallic systems. As a study neither well known nor traditionally participated in by women, Sondezi-Mhlungu will be the first South African woman to hold a PhD in this field of study once she has completed it. As a consequence, she won the 2009 department of science and technology’s Women in Science Award and a fellowship to finance her ongoing research.

Sondezi-Mhlungu studied part-time and worked as a scientist at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa before applying for and accepting a lectureship at UJ. In 2007, the opportunity to be close to the labs to complete the required experiments for her PhD while working to build a science-conscious community through teaching was a dream come true. And it is in teaching — transforming minds through physics, guiding research and expanding the science pool — where her greatest fulfilment and contribution to individuals and to her country lies.

Apart from publishing in multiple journals, Sondezi- Mhlungu was named as one of Cosmopolitan magazine’s “Fun and Fearless Women” in 2009 and received a human and institutional capacity development grant in 2011 and University Research Council funding in 2012 from the National Research Foundation. In addition to tutoring school pupils in maths and physical science on Saturdays, Sondezi-Mhlungu is involved in a variety of church-based activities.

— Lu Larche