The dusty pathways of the rural village of Ga-Matlala Ngwanallela are a far cry from the sophisticated Santa Fe Convention Centre in the United States, from which Regina Maphanga has just returned after presenting a scientific paper on defects in insulating materials. It was in the Limpopo landscape of her birth, though, in a classroom under a tree, that her love of science first took root.
Today, Maphanga’s work addresses one of the world’s most pressing challenges: the development of cleaner and more sustainable sources of energy. As senior researcher at the Materials Modelling Centre at the University of Limpopo, she uses complex computational modelling techniques to probe battery materials, one aspect of renewable energy. She is in her element. “But I wasn’t always so confident,” she admits.
A shy child, she grew up, like many other kids in her area, collecting water, preparing food, helping her mother around the house. There was no money for extras, but her parents were able to find enough for school fees. She believes it was their support, along with the encouragement of Mr Kgobe, her primary school maths teacher, that motivated her: “I worked very hard not to disappoint them,” she says.
Because of her exceptional aptitude for maths and science Maphanga’s progress through school was accelerated and she finished early, always intending to study science, “but I knew I couldn’t be a medical doctor because I cannot stand seeing people hurt”.
She opted for the physical sciences instead and received her first degree when she was 19. Graduating cum laude in her honours year gave her the courage to further her studies and, at the age of 26, she successfully completed her PhD in physics. “Of course, many of my peers thought ‘physics is for men’, so it was satisfying to prove them wrong,” she says. The biggest reward, though, came at her graduation ceremony: “Knowing where we come from, getting my doctorate in front of my parents was an emotional moment for me; for all of us.
“I have learnt that being very quiet and shy has not stopped me from doing what I am good at. I am now a confident woman and young scientist, proof that it doesn’t matter where you come from; what matters is where you are going.”
Maphanga has not moved far from where she grew up — although her work takes her all over the world. “Limpopo is regarded as poor and rural and I want to help change that perception and make a difference in people’s lives, through my research and my teaching. It is my home and my responsibility.”