At 24 years old Sumeekha Singh is probably among the youngest female scientists who are quietly transforming the face, character and composition of the STEMi sector in South Africa. The Durban-born academic is currently completing her PhD in applied mathematics. But she says hers was a rather paradoxical start to her academic journey. “As a young girl, I struggled quite a bit with maths. I was more attuned to my artistic side where I initially expected to follow a career path in the visual arts,” Singh says.
But all this changed when she reached high school as she found herself enjoying the challenges that came with mathematics and sciences, says Singh. “With my creative imagination and newfound curiosity for the way things logically work, I became intrigued by the beauty and deeper machinations of the cosmos,” she adds. Singh says the ability to predict the future of the universe is what intrigued and influenced her to pursue her current studies.
Obtaining stunning images
Singh’s current study focuses on theoretical cosmology which looks at how the history of the universe led to the stars, galaxies, and other breathtaking features we can observe today. She says even thought she knew it would be a difficult area to venture into, she was also aware that it would provide a challenging atmosphere which promotes a heuristic approach to learning. “I had always been fascinated by black holes, gravity, galaxy formation and how we obtain the stunning images of them, as well as understanding how the universe might have begun,” says Singh. She says this is what primarily influenced her to choose a career path in astrophysics with the aim of aiding in research to unlock and discover more information about these extraordinary phenomena.
Tribute to late parents
Singh says she owes her current academic trajectory to her late parents. “My dad himself was especially skilled in mathematics and chemistry with an eye for design, having been a jewellery manufacturer. We would spend nights watching a plethora of space documentaries and he always encouraged me to be original in my projects,” says Singh. Similarly, her mother instilled key human values such as confidence and resilience. “She seemed like a jack of all trades and this made me feel almost limitless in my capabilities of what I can achieve if I really apply myself. They have both inspired my curiosity at a young age and supported my passions. May they both rest peacefully,” adds Singh.
Impact on society
But how does astrophysics adds value or help resolve some of the challenges that society faces? Singh believes astrophysical research strongly influences humanity’s view of its place in the world as a whole. She says astronomical objects also appeal to non-scientists and therefore astrophysics can help encourage young people to pursue fields related to it and also promote scientific awareness among the general public. Some of the benefits include:
- Job creation in multitude of sectors as many significant projects require a truly interdisciplinary approach, for example the SKA project has pushed the boundaries of Big Dataas well as radio engineering in its quest to search the deepest corners of the universe.
- Providing opportunities for international co-operation through projects, conferences and events which builds more diverse connections with people abroad.
- Providing a platform for astrophysics to interact with other branches of science which can lead to more breakthroughs in science.
Increasing women participation in STEMi
Singh says it is critical to increase the number of young women in the STEMi fields as there are currently very few of them in the sector. She says this can be achieved by removing gender biases and the general stigmas that prevent girls from dreaming of a career in science, such as materials that often portray male professions as engineers and scientists while women are more likely to be depicted as teachers or nurses etc. In addition, says Singh, male colleagues also need to be allies, as dismantling gender stereotypes benefits all.
“We can improve secondary education opportunities among girls by financially incentivising them through scholarships to ensure they complete their secondary school education. Providing support in tertiary education through mentorship, skills development, and networking opportunities are also key elements. There are already programmes in place such as ‘STEM MentHER’ that aid in this progress,” she says.
Singh’s advice to young female scientists who are starting their academic journey in the STEMi stream, is that they should have passion, discipline and creativity. She says they should also understand that technology is always evolving and that they should keep up with the changes to remain relevant. Singh also challenges the view that people who get the highest grades in school are those who will go into STEM fields.
“Cleverness alone isn’t enough to succeed in science. I believe that perseverance, mental strength and not being deterred by failure, as well as being book smart also matter. It can be exhausting to constantly have to try and prove that you are good enough considering that it’s a very academically competitive environment but reaching the end of your STEMi career goals will be worth it,” concludes Singh.