Professor Refilwe Nancy Phaswana-Mafuya is one of the country’s highly decorated epidemiologists, who commands considerable respect from her peers and globally. She is also among the first female academics who broke the proverbial glass ceiling in the STEM sector particularly in the context of the low numbers of women at leadership levels. The role and inputs of epidemiologists came to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic where they provided timely and science-based advice to the South African government on what measures to implement to stop the infections.
String of accolades
Professor Phaswana-Mafuna was recently appointed the director of the University of Johannesburg (UJ)’s Extramural Research Units (EMUs) -one of the fourth such outfits launched to date – which are the South African Medical Research Council’s research divisions whose key role is to conduct research on the council’s behalf. The UJ has since established a Pan African Centre for Epidemics Research (PACER) in April this year to further the EMU objectives.
Queen of research
Of all the credits Professor Phaswana-Mafuya received, it is the recent one where she was crowned the Queen of Research that will stand out. Last week Ghanaian Abeadze Traditional Council hosted a glittering ceremony where this prestigious was formally announced. The award is widely seen as a welcome development that will deepen collaborations between South Africa and Ghana. ‘Queen of Research’ is a non-competitive and it is the discretion of the traditional authority to confer a royal honour in recognition of contributions made. The primary of the award is to motivate more women participation in the STEMi as current numbers are disappointingly low on the continent. Ghanian Abeadze Dominase Traditional Kingdom and His Majesty, Nana Daasbre Kwebu Ewusi VII, presented the accolade which coincided with the Paramount Chief’s Annual Event.
Inspiring young women
Daasbre Kwebu Ewusi VII said Professor Phaswane-Mafuya is an inspiration to the next generation of women researchers. Furthermore, added His Majesty, she is Africa’s most celebrated icon whose research in science was not only outstanding but also impacted ordinary lives in particular in the fight against pandemics such as HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 which have had devastating impact on the African continent. Said the paramount chief about Professor Phaswana-Mafuya: “Her tireless efforts to conduct policy-driven, development-orientated, relevant, responsive and timely epidemiological and public health research that seek to improve health outcomes and quality of life for all equitably is being recognized through this coronation.”
In her response Prof Phaswana-Mafuya said: “I am honoured to have received this prestigious recognition. The appointment by the traditional authority cements SA-Ghana diplomatic ties and allows for strengthening of research collaborations in public health, epidemics and indigenous knowledge and cultural influence in health education. As I pledge my allegiance to the Abeadze Traditional Kingdom, I aim to influence greater relations to further PACER’s intra-continental research agenda, which is underpinned by scientific excellence, public health significance, multi or inter-disciplinarity, innovativeness, local relevance as well as global competitiveness and impact.”
Early childhood days
Although she did not have an ideal upbringing, Professor Phaswama-Mafuya always wanted to pursue the sciences with the hope that she would one day become a medical doctor. She is one of seven children brought up in Botlokwa village in Limpopo by hard working, self-employed and semi-illiterate parents. Before she became an epidemiologist, she enrolled for a social work where she excelled and she used her salary to assist her parents and siblings.
After completing her social work degree she got an opportunity to go and study in the UK where she obtained a degree focusing in gerontology, post-graduate diploma and Masters of Science in epidemiology. This was followed by a PhD degree in injury prevention at the young age of 29. Her passion and ultimate goal is to contribute towards creating awareness and pipeline of young scientists. The long-term mission of Professor Phaswane-Mafuya is to promote excellence in scholarship, research and innovation. She says she would like to be associated with selflessness, as a generous woman who is always willing to sacrifice all she has for the public good. She advises young women to work hard and be focused saying their gender should not be seen as barrier to achieving their goals.