National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Prof Nosipho Moloto

For her contribution to capacity building through finding simple synthetic methods 

Black women engineers are thriving at Wits under the leadership of their ‘big sister’, Prof Nosipho Moloto.

Moloto, an inorganic chemistry professor, is the DSI/NRF/Nedbank SARChI Chair in Energy Materials. Her projects include creating technologies for faster wound healing and renewable energy.

Globally, only 22% of materials science and engineering researchers are female, but Moloto’s ‘Nanoweb’ group of principal investigators are 83% black women, and more than half of the group’s postgraduates are female.

“We are few creatures … in this male-dominated sector,” says Moloto. She knows how hard it is for women to work as female engineering academics, and yet women bring different perspectives that can be very valuable. She says women can often be more meticulous, thoughtful and caring.

She cares especially about the impact new technologies she’s working on would have on an ordinary South African, such as a homemaker, or someone who did not have access to good education. “What would be the point of making complex technologies that nobody can understand how to use?” 

One of the technologies Moloto is piloting is wound dressing for people who suffer from chronic wounds, such as those living with HIV or diabetes. It uses silver particles that promote faster healing and does not have to be changed. The dressing is also made using local raw materials, and it is biodegradable and non-toxic.

She says her work considers local conditions and what ordinary people need, and she actively builds expertise within historically disadvantaged communities to do the same.

Moloto very intentionally recruits black females to her group, and has created an environment sensitive to their wellbeing. “I think they naturally gravitate towards another female, and they feel I can relate to balancing things like studying and starting a family. 

“They see me as a big sister, so in that sense it is easy, and I’m happy they are doing well.”

Her team is currently working on commercialising products and services for energy and biomedical applications.

She says she was lucky to progress so quickly academically, to lead such a successful group, and to develop useful technologies. But her work and mentorship hints instead at an innate brilliance and long-term vision.

“What I would like to see is that we don’t think of gender; we don’t think of race. We just think: these are all scientists; these are good engineers.”

Prof Nosipho Moloto received the Engineering Research Capacity Development Award for an outstanding contribution by an individual or a team over the last 5 to 10 years, sponsored by Eskom since 2003. — ScienceLink

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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