Nomawethu Hlazo credits her mother and an associate professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT) who taught her Human Evolution studies in her first year for her current academic accomplishments. She said her mother “enriched and encourage my love of Biology and History”.
Hlazo was born in Port Elizabeth to a diplomat mother and this resulted in her attending International schools mostly in America. She is currently a research assistant at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Exploration of the Deep Human Journey as well as the New Human Project at the University of Kent in England. Hlazo is also pursuing her doctorate studies at UCT. She obtained her undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Archaeology.
Hlazo’s post-graduate studies focused primarily on the genus Paranthropus and the variation that exists between and within species. Following the fossil species, she has concentrated on the study of geometric morphometrics and will follow new techniques such as paleoproteomics to investigate a number of aspects and these include:
- shape change
- contributions of evolutionary processes
- phylogenetic relationships
- sex determination and
- ecological niches occupied by the genus Paranthropus.
Her research work on Paranthropus saw her work at several sites not on only in the Cradle of Humankind but in Kenya. Her research has shown that this genus is highly diverse and more variable than we expected. Hlazo completed her Masters’ degree with distinction and she has been able to show the contributions of both natural selection and genetic drift and their roles in shaping Paranthropus craniomandibular variation.
Hlazo says she feels “inspired by knowing that through my work and efforts, I will one day be able to change the narrative from one that is homogenous and dominated by white males, most of whom are not South Africans in the Palaeosciences”. She says she wants to “shift this narrative towards one that tells the story of the origins of humankind from its rightful perspective, of having its roots in Africa”.
Said Hlazo: “I am driven and want to be one of the females who serve as an example of what people of colour (POC) representation looks like in a space where we have been previously excluded. I want to see black female and POC representation in Palaeosciences and generally in the STEM fields. And for the African story to be taught in the African context using African technologies and its people and integrating that into a decolonised science.” She says she wants to educate Africans youth about human evolution and their lineage and ensure this practice continues and grows in their communities.
“I am driven and want to be one of the females who serve as an example of what people of colour (POC) representation looks like in a space where we have been previously excluded. I want to see black female and POC representation in Palaeosciences and generally in the STEM fields. And for the African story to be taught in the African context using African technologies and its people and integrating that into a decolonised Science.”
Asked about the challenges she faced in the field as a woman, Hlazo says her biggest mistake was taking for granted that the system would operate in a way that allows people of colour to achieve their goals in the field of anthropology and science in general. Hlazo says she was subjected to the racism, sexism and that her work and research were purely undermined because of who she is. “It has boiled down to having to work much harder in order to ‘prove oneself’, says Hlazo.
But despite these unsavoury moments, Hlazo also boasts a few achievements. These include being featured in the 2019 August edition of Nature journals career profile focusing on “gender, race and field schools in South African Anthropology”. She says she used the platform to encourage young black female Africans to pursue their dreams and also challenge institutionalised racism and inequality the STEM field. She also contributed a number of articles and papers in various publications and media platforms. Some of the accolades she received included being the winner of ‘Inspiring 5o SA 2020’, shortlisted for the Mail & Guardian’s ‘200 Young South Africans 2020’.
Hlazo’s tips to future generations of women who want to follow in her footsteps should “not take things at face value”. Says Hlazo: “Step into something having defined your intentions and follow through, don’t let other people dissuade you or tell you anything different from what you came here to do. You need to be clear of who you are, what you are and where you stand.”