Senior researcher: Materials Modelling Centre, University of Limpopo

Rapela Regina Maphanga

It’s no secret. The planet needs cleaner, sustainable energy sources and someone needs to discover and optimise high-performance materials, such as batteries. That someone is 33-year-old Regina Maphanga, a senior researcher and physics lecturer who uses computational modelling techniques to probe battery materials at the level of atoms and nanoparticles.

Sound complicated? You should read her physics thesis. It started out as a master’s but her findings were so qualitative she was awarded a doctorate. On a scientific level, Maphanga can do everything that people in white coats usually do in laboratories, only with a computer.

Maphanga was the only female and first student to graduate with a BSc honours in physics (cum laude) from the University of Limpopo. Add to this the fact that she hails from Ga-Matlala Ngwanallela, a small village west of Polokwane, and you get an idea of how hard she has worked and the challenges she has bested.

In between being a top scientific researcher, she is a passionate lecturer who jumps at the chance to hold exhibitions or give motivational talks to young learners, especially women, to further the development of the science, engineering and technology fields in South Africa.

If her body of work speaks for itself, her awards speak for her commitment to building a “knowledge generation economy”. She has represented South Africa at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of New Champions and received the 2010 National Science and Technology Forum Award as a Distinguished Young Black Female Researcher. The next year, she was selected to the prestigious Global Young Academy, the distinguished voice of young scientists internationally. It looks as if Maphanga has the empirical data to back up her firm belief that “everything happens for a reason”.

— Cat Pritchard

Twitter: @maphangar