The CSIR is on a steady drive to attract and retain the best of the best. One of the many successes in this regard is senior research and development engineer, Dr Natasha Botha, whose academic title was recently earned through her hard work and discipline, as well as with the unwavering support of the CSIR. Natasha is recognised as a phenomenal CSIR woman this month and beyond.
Natasha joined the CSIR in 2010 on a Master’s studentship and was then absorbed as a permanent staff member in 2013 after successfully completing her Master’s degree. “Throughout my early career I had a lot of opportunities to learn. The CSIR encouraged me to attend courses to further my skills, which allowed me to naturally grow. After a few years, I indicated my interest in pursuing a PhD and the CSIR agreed to fund the degree and provide an environment in which I was able to have some time to work on it in between my normal work activities. Without this support, completing my PhD would have been more stressful as my chosen university expected full-time commitment from me as a student even though I worked full time,” she shared. The support that the CSIR gave Natasha yielded excellent results as she graduated with her Doctor of Philosophy in mechanical engineering from the University of Pretoria (UP) on Tuesday, 9 May 2023.
Active drive towards fast tracking capable women
Speaking from experience, Natasha said that support for women at the CSIR is a norm, not just during Women’s Month, but all year round. “The CSIR is supportive of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and there is an active drive towards fast tracking capable women. The addition of the CSIR Women’s Forum has also increased the visibility of women in STEM and provides a platform for women at the CSIR to share their journeys and challenges with one another,” Natasha expressed.
Her career highlights have been many and, more so, since joining the Centre for Robotics and Future Production in 2021. At the centre, Natasha has the opportunity to learn more about artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, as well as to drive and lead the aerial robotics initiatives.
“The project that stands out for me is the design and development of a micro aerial vehicle specifically for indoor use, like in warehouses or manufacturing plants. This project has been fun and I have enjoyed the process. The next step is to implement the autonomous behaviour so that it can move on its own (sans a pilot) to perform a desired task. We are currently looking at stock-taking in warehouses since there has been an interest shown from industry. Personally, I’d like to look at collaborative robotics using multiple aerial platforms or even an aerial and ground robot,” Natasha added.
Natasha admits that while she is loving her ‘new’ field of work, AI and robotics chose her. “I love working on projects that make an impact and produce a tangible product. In the digital era, AI and robotics are the ideal areas to work in. These areas have software and hardware components, and there is a physical product that makes a difference to someone somewhere. And who doesn’t love playing with a robot?” she said with a smile.
Excellence and integrity required in knowledge-generation fields
It’s clear that Natasha embodies the spirit of the CSIR EPIC values in everything she does. According to Natasha, it’s difficult to choose just one value that resonates the most with her because she is committed to applying all the values in her work and personal life. “In any knowledge-generation field, high levels of excellence and integrity are a must and I try to incorporate these values in my daily life. I also love collaborations and try to often work with others as this always provides another opportunity to learn and see things differently. In fact, my PhD work was extremely collaborative – I worked with researchers at UP, the Tshwane University of Technology and the Institute for Polymer Research in Germany,” she revealed.
Without a doubt, Natasha applied the EPIC values in her PhD journey – a journey she recalls as tough. “A PhD is a lot of hard work, late nights, bouts of imposter syndrome and not to mention the endless stream of tears and stress. But it is also very rewarding and the feeling at the end of that journey, when you are standing on stage at your graduation, is amazing. I was flooded with relief, but I was also extremely proud of myself for reaching this point – nothing else in my life has matched that feeling,” she expressed.
Natasha’s advice for those currently experiencing the challenges of a PhD or any studies for that matter is to be consistent in working on your thesis daily, even if it is only for an hour, and this includes weekends. “You must also have a strong mind with the determination to finish as this is the only thing that will pull you out of the dark times when everything is going wrong, and you feel like giving up. This can happen, but you can pull yourself out of the dark with sheer determination and knowing that you are working towards something EPIC.”
As the country celebrates Women’s Month, Natasha remarks: “I believe that every month is Women’s Month, and we should always remember to celebrate ourselves even if the whole world doesn’t. But I do appreciate a month dedicated to celebrating women and highlighting the challenges we have faced in the past and are still facing. Women have come a long way and we will continue to do so for many years to come.”