After completing her studies in Food Security and Agricultural Production at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Mcunu enrolled at Wits University to pursue a PhD in environmental science with a focus on agriculture, food security and climate change.
She and her business partner, Mantombi Ngoloyi, who’s also pursuing a PhD in France, realised that there is a lack of black women pursuing specialised sciences, as well a lack of integration into the community and a sense of inaccessibility.
“My interest in science was moulded through strong family support and exposure,” says Mcunu. “Without these two factors, I would have given up. Hence, Black Women in Science [BWIS] focuses on creating networks for all university students and rural young black women so that they can gain exposure and support to increase the number of women in science.”
Tackling the challenges in STEM
Mcunu says there are a range of challenges facing young women, including a lack of mentorship, guidance and support from women who are already in the industry.
“Among the most rural or disadvantaged communities, I think that family responsibilities, financial constraints, gender stereotypes and misconceptions play a large role. The high cost of enrolling for a STEM degree, compared with other options, is also often discouraging,” she adds.
BWIS aims to make careers in sciences more accessible and familiar to females by facilitating a culture of mentorship that connects and engages women of all ages, at different stages in their careers.
The BWIS Emerging Researcher programme identifies passionate, bright university students who can provide mentorship to high school students. This year, 50 black female rural students will be mentored by 72 of BWIS’s Emerging Researchers in KwaZulu-Natal.
“Changing young women’s lives, interacting with students and challenging them is exciting and has challenged me,” says Mcunu. “It humbles me to see young, bright university students believing in our mandate.”
Working as a scientist
Not only is Mcunu passionate about increasing the number of women in science, but her PhD focuses on the effects of climatic change on biodiversity conservation and agricultural production for sub-Saharan farmers.
She strives to help improve farming systems by promoting knowledge of the ecological impact of climatic change on food production and suggesting ways of reducing it. “The aim is to understand what can be done to improve the food production and security of farmers,” she explains.
Mcunu was recently selected for the Young African Leaders Initiative Mandela Washington Fellowship for 2017. “I value this selection and look forward to better pruning the mandate of BWIS and my leadership perception in Africa,” she says.
Mcunu’s advice to aspiring scientists:
Ensure you make an informed career choice.
Young women need to evaluate the skills needed in the country and think in the long term. Read the National Development Plan and see how your career choice can contribute to the growth of the country.
Be dynamic. Make people see and understand what you’re doing by showing its relevance to the country.