Before she even began school, Dr Margaret Mkhosi learnt about the rotation of the earth and its revolution around the sun from her elder brother and has been fascinated by science ever since.
Yet growing up in the rural village of Kopela in North West province, she never imagined that she’d become an engineer, let alone the first female nuclear engineer in her homeland. “We lived in a village where the only people who lived a better life were teachers or policemen. But later in high school, I learnt a little bit about engineering, and when I was in matric, I became interested in it,” she recalls.
After matriculating, she took up a position at the University of Bophuthatswana as a junior lecturer and two years later she registered for a Masters degree in physics and chemistry at North-West University. During an educational tour in Cape Town, Mkhosi made two life-changing visits to a nuclear power plant and a research laboratory focused on nuclear science and radiation medicine for cancer treatment. “It was fascinating to me because, for the first time in my life, I realised that I can use what I’m learning in the world and it can be of benefit to people,” she says.
Although there weren’t any nuclear engineering programmes offered in South Africa at that time, Mkhosi vowed that if she ever got the chance, she would do whatever necessary to enter that field.
Her chance came in 2000 when she was selected to pursue doctoral studies in nuclear engineering at Ohio State University. She had to leave her five-month-old daughter, young son and husband to pursue her studies. Mkhosi remembers the negativity and wild beliefs that she was subjected to prior to boarding the plane. “When people heard I was going to the US to study nuclear engineering they told me I was going to end up with three eyes and would give birth to deformed children. Now I know that those things are far from the truth, but these are tales that play on your mind if you are not properly educated.”
In 2007, Mkhosi became the third woman to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering at Ohio State. She stayed in the US to do postdoctoral research at Purdue University in Indiana, then returned home and began working for the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) as a senior nuclear engineering analyst. As she ascended in her career in SA, she discovered a passion for shaping new initiatives. “For me, what is really exciting is the ability to make contributions to new programmes, ones that don’t have a blueprint, that no one has done anywhere.”
At the Technology Innovation Agency, Mkhosi managed programmes that help researchers and innovators develop their ideas into products that could eventually be commercialised. She also established the Youth Technology Innovation Fund, which is geared toward innovators age 30 or younger. Today, as the inaugural director of the Centre for Nuclear Safety and Security, she leads efforts to create a pipeline of trained talent who can support the National Nuclear Regulator and the nuclear sector. She plays another vital role in her sector, in her capacity as the president of the Women in Nuclear South Africa (WiNSA) and on a larger scale, as an executive member of Women in Nuclear Global, Africa region.
She also began an initiative called ‘Charity begins at home’, which sees her taking her knowledge to schoolgirls in her village, teaching them hands-on activities that makes STEM, and in particular nuclear science and technology, exciting to learn. “My philosophy is simple: teach your children in a way that will excite them, first for their own benefit and second, so they might share this knowledge with their friends and help spread awareness,” she says. Her ambition is to continue mentoring these young women with the hope that they will one day add to the number of women in the industry and that this will contribute to the skills needed in the STEM industry, and for the envisaged nuclear expansion. “I want to help young kids in our villages. I know that they have all the capabilities, they just need the exposure and encouragement.”
When she’s facing difficult challenges, Mkhosi counts on her resilience to get through them. “With time, I realised that I cannot choose what others say or do, or what life throws at me, but I can control how I want it to affect me. Positive thoughts and taking control of what is within my limits and power. Humility and persistence are other traits which come handy when things are not going well.”