The Tenth International Conference “MCR – Mechanisms of Catalytic Reactions” was held in Svetlogorsk on October 2-6, 2016. Svetlogorsk, formerly the little German town of Rauschen, is part of Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg) region on the Baltic Sea. The famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant was born in Konigsberg in 1724. Kaliningrad University is now named after him. Svetlogorsk, literally translated as “Light Mountain”, is well-known for its amber industry and for its many spa hotels. It is also a popular conference and events venue.
Mabuatsela Virginia Maphoru from Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria, South Africa is the only female African participant at the conference with over 180 attendees. She has a short oral presentation titled “Oxidation of naphthols on nanocrystalline Pt-Group Metal Catalysts” and she also introduces a poster presentation composed under the guidance of her academic advisor professor Josef Heveling “Selective Oxidation of Alcohols to Aldehydes over PTA-Sb/C Catalysts”. I used the opportunity to ask her a few questions during the poster session.
How and why did she decide to do science?
“My sister was doing physics”, explained Mabu, as she told me to address her. On the one hand, her sister’s interest in science and the family support for this occupation helped the girl realize that science and research are fascinating and rewarding in themselves. On the other hand, several other factors influenced her decision.
Was there a teacher who helped her make that choice?
Yes. Mabu had a great mathematics teacher who was actually a biologist but he loved maths and managed to show his students how attractive and amazing the study of figures and numbers may be. Since she had no good science teacher for some time, her maths teacher filled in the void. He gave her extra tasks, advised on her reading and studies, and generally stimulated her mind to become more inquisitive and organized. Mabu entered the university of Pretoria after school where she studied for three years, and then she got another year for practice and for deciding what she wanted to do next. She went to work as a technician at a private firm but continued her academic reading. After more than three years Mabu went on to her Master’s course and received her MSc. (catalysis) in two and a half years. She talks enthusiastically about various catalytic reactions, the catalysts she gets, the new trends and directions in her field. Her eyes sparkle, she smiles when she talks of her experiments. One can see that she is very dedicated to her research. Right after her Master’s course she went into the next stage, and now she is a Ph.D. student hoping to graduate next year.
Is it difficult for a woman to exist in this still mostly male environment? The answer is Yes and No. The Catalysis Society of South Africa was formed at the end of the 1970’s to promote the use and understanding of catalysis both in academia and industry. They hold an annual meeting; though the community is small it is growing, there are plenty of young people who are passionate about this branch of research. Female researchers are now seen as a natural part of this small world. Once a woman gets a position she also gets the same conditions and the same pay as men do. And yet there are some problems and difficulties.
“Ours is still a man’s world. Men feel that they are good, it’s like a given; women still have to prove, to do more”, says Mabu. She is very optimistic about the future, talking about nano-technologies and the great perspectives for their application in catalysis. It is clear she loves chemistry and would love to continue her research. There are several possibilities for those who successfully finish their Ph.D. course and get their degree. One can work at a university but this involves lecturing, hence a lot of time would be spent on preparation and grading students’ papers. Mabu would prefer to work at a research institute. “There is nothing more fascinating, more absorbing than science!”