Sandra Phoma displayed versatility, academic excellence and leadership qualities at a very young age. Her current achievement as one of the top young microbiologist did not come as a complete surprise.
Miss Phoma was born in Mabopane but spent her youth in Mahikeng, North West province, where she started and completed her schooling. Not only did she excel academically but she was also exceptional in sport, music and displayed her leadership abilities as early as in Grade 3.
Upon completing her Grade 12 Miss Phoma struggled to secure funding to further her studies. In 2008 she decided to take a gap year and she used this time to study end-user computing and photography courses at the local private college. Thanks to her parents’ assistance, she secured funding from EduLoan which enabled her to study at the University of the North-West in Mahikeng Campus.
She then enrolled for a BSc in Biology and Chemistry degree, with the hope of switching to medicine. During the course of her studies she took up students’ issues including serving as a student course representative and student tutor during the under-graduate years.
Miss Phoma completed her degree in record time in 2011 and after two years she enrolled for a BSc. Hons. degree in microbiology. She also took up an internship from the National Research Foundation (NRF) and Department of Science and Technology (DST) in the same year. This was the first time she received funding for her studies from the NRF grant holder portfolio.
She completed her Honours degree cum laude and was awarded a National Research Foundation Innovation Masters Scholarship. In 2016 she graduated with an MSc degree in microbiology in 2016 at the University of Pretoria (UP) and with the unwavering support from the NRF, she enrolled for a PhD at University of Pretoria in 2017.
She is the South African first-generation graduate to complete a PhD in Ocean Microbial Ecology at UP. This is a multi-disciplinary research project comprising microbiology, ecology and oceanography and aims to unveil the drivers of Southern Ocean bacterial, archaeal, fungal and viral community composition, diversity and functionality using omics approaches.
“This research has allowed me to lead sampling efforts for the laboratory, during the South Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean expeditions onboard the S.A. Agulhas II research and logistics vessel. The project resulted in two first-author publications. I’m also a youth activist, focused on ocean advocacy and science diplomacy. I was head-hunted to be a youth ambassador for South Africa by the DSI and UP in the European-Union (EU) supported 2019/2020 All-Atlantic Ocean Youth Ambassador programme,” she says.
Currently Miss Phoma mentors the 2021/2022 cohort and a youth involvement lead for the Marine Microbiome Working Group by the Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance (AORA). She has also recently transitioned to industry at Thermo Fisher Scientific (South Africa: February 2021). Miss Phoma believes science is one of the greatest collective voyages life provides. She says its application and education is necessary to provide solutions to humanity’s challenges or problems.
As a woman Phoma experienced problems which range from racism, financial exclusions due to being part of the “missing middle class” and discrimination as a womxn in STEM. “I am currently healing from depression and anxiety linked to my experience in academia,” says Miss Phoma.
She has a long list of accolades she received in her career. Some of these include, apart from being a published researcher:
- Mentor at the National Eskom Expo for Young Scientist in 2016 and 2017
- STEM curriculum peer reviewer for EduChange Inc.
- She was selected as the All-Atlantic Ocean Youth Ambassador in 2019 by the DSI and European Commission which funded the Atlantic Ocean Research and Innovation Co-operation to enable the next generation to become actors of change in their communities, by promoting stewardship of the sustainable development of the Atlantic Ocean.
- She presented the ocean ambassador actions at the Paris Peace Forum, UNESCO Ocean Decade and EU events to advocate for youth voices and early career scientists in science advocacy and ocean science.
- She was selected as the All-Atlantic Ocean Youth Ambassador mentor for the 2020/2021 cohort.
- She also led workshops on science communication to youth on topics such as “how to communicate climate change to your community” and “ways that policy makers can involve scientists and youth people to advance ocean science and advocacy”.
- She was part of the inaugural organising committee for #BlackinMicro week (@BlackinMicro on twitter and Instagram; https://blackinmicrobiology.org/), representing Africa.
- She is currently one of the 50 Womxn in STEM recipients of the 2020 Inspiring Fifty South Africa award. The mission is to inspire girls and women through an outreach programme to choose a career in STEM.
Miss Phoma says the youth and women are an untapped resource in scientific fields. “They need to use their voice and lived experiences to fuel their experiences. In this way, they can believe that they are a valuable to propel innovation and drive scientific knowledge.”