Musa Ndlangamandla (Published in Science Forum 2019)
Valentine Saasa is upbeat about the Science Forum South Africa (SFSA), saying year upon year it grows in stature to the extent that it has become the premier platform in the continent that builds bridges to promote Africa’s growth and development through innovation and collaboration. “SFSA enriches role of science in the lives of millions of people.”
The need to raise the profile of women in science, technology and innovation continues to generate significant interest in the science ecosystem. Key challenges are the participation of the girl-child in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the gender-gap in science-related careers, and the fact that young male scientists seem to be viewed favourably and get more opportunities in terms of promotions and remuneration than women with the same qualifications. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), women only account for 28 percent of the world’s researchers, with lower percentages of women holding higher-level positions. In South Africa, approximately 40 percent of scientists are female. Breaking the glass ceiling
Despite the challenges, the proverbial glass ceiling is being shattered as many women in South Africa (SA) continue to make major breakthroughs in their fields and in the wider science ecosystem in general. A case in point is Ph.D. candidate Valentine Saasa. Her supervisor, Dr Bonex Mwakukunga, is involved in pioneering research on a nanotechnology breathalyser. Saasa is also working on a device that will come as a relief to millions of people with diabetes who, on a daily basis, have to prick themselves to test their blood-glucose levels. Saasa’s ground-breaking initiative enables them to use breath to detect blood levels. Saasa is currently pursuing a doctoral degree with the University of Pretoria, sponsored by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). She is focusing on screening nano-materials for their potential use in non-invasive diagnosis and monitoring of diseases such diabetes and cancer. Not only is she raising the SA flag in the world of science, she is also Africa’s beacon of hope.
Saasa is part of a growing number of scientists who are responsible for making discoveries and advances in a wide variety of areas of science and making a difference in fields of medicine, biology, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, and research. “SFSA enriches the interface between scientists and members of the public and goes a long way to enhance the continent’s discourse on the role of science in the lives of millions of people. This is the ideal platform to pursue forward-looking solutions and strengthen cooperation and partnerships and to collectively advance the practice of science,” Saasa says. She says SFSA 2018 will continue the tradition of moving Africa’s youth to exploit the many opportunities that exist in scientific careers. Cutting-edge innovation Unpacking her cutting-edge innovation, Saasa says two years ago she and colleagues conducted a successful round of trials at the Helen Joseph Hospital diabetic ward. It was in that same year (2016) that Saasa proved her mettle and received an MSc in biochemistry cum laude from the University of Johannesburg. Saasa also holds an honours and bachelor’s degree from the University of Limpopo, where she specialised in medicinal plant extraction for diabetes mellitus management. She was awarded a DST doctoral fellowship award in 2017 during the SA Women in Science Awards. Saasa also holds a science communication certificate from Stellenbosch University, where she was selected and funded by the NRF/SAASTA as a South African young science communicator.
“We found a correlation between blood-glucose and acetone levels. That was the basis of the device’s use of breath to detect blood levels. We are making great progress in trying to scale down the invention into a more portable device,” Saasa says. It is her passion to apply science and scientific solutions to improve the lot of humanity that led this breakthrough, which goes a long way to reduce the chances of patients contracting secondary diseases from the use of needles and blood tests. The nanotechnology breathalyser is also cost-effective and pain-free as it requires only breath to measure glucose levels.
Amplifying the voice of women Saasa believes that there is a strong case to be made for increasing the participation of women and girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. Lending succor to her conviction, she founded a non-profit organisation named Capricorn Educational Resource Centre, whose objective is to popularise STEM as attractive, relevant and accessible to learners in rural areas. The Centre advocates STEM as a powerful tool to enable society to critically engage with key aspects of science and appreciate science endeavours. “Stem fields are at the forefront of innovation and will continue to be the definer of crucial careers of the future. Women deserve to be fully and equally represented in STEM sectors as they are an integral part of the future of humanity,” Saasa says, adding, “SA is making significant progress in these issues and more women’s voices are getting amplified as the nation continues with efforts to achieve a knowledge-based and industrialised society. This is particularly so in the area of science, technology, innovation, research and coming up with products and solutions in medicine, education, astronomy and other areas.” Saasa notes though, that whilst a lot of ground has been covered, there still is a lot to be done in greater Africa when it comes to improving the participation of women in science. She says women continue to be under-represented in various African countries. “STEM work can play a more crucial role to empower them and help them improve their lives. Events like SFSA provide unique opportunities for us to encourage women and girls to pursue careers in science,” she says.
Saasa was born and bred in Botlokwa, a rural area outside Polokwane in Limpopo. She attended school from crèche through to an honours degree in the area. Saasa used to walk the distance from home to school at Shapo Primary School Letheba Secondary School. That was until she moved to Pretoria to pursue her Master’s degree. Saasa has led the NSW 2017 and 2018 projects granted to Capricorn Edu. The NSW is a Department of Science and Technology (DST’s) flagship project and is celebrated annually countrywide through organising science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and innovation (STEMI) activities by various stakeholders, role players, and interest groups.
Among other scientific community services, she has been facilitating the nanotechnology role modelling campaign in high schools around the country, writing nanomedicine journal pack for NRF/SAASTA school debates, etc. Saasa’s work has been published in respected publications such as the Diagnostic Journal. She also contributed a chapter to a book called ‘Sensors and Transducers’. The Mail & Guardian reports that her presentation on the ‘Detection of acetone in diabetes mellitus using gas chromatography mass spectrometry and tungsten oxide’ was published in conference proceedings. Saasa presented her work in the area of nanotechnology for the development of sensors for disease detection. The newspaper adds that Saasa has co-authored one technology demonstration titled ‘Development and calibration of breath analyser device for diabetics, liver failure and kidney failure’. In recognition of her illustrious contribution to science solutions, Saasa was awarded the South African Women in Science communication prize by the British Council and Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAF). She has traveled to the United Kingdom for early career development training. Throughout her professional and personal journey her compassion for the less fortunate and advocacy for humanity in her community has shone through. Saasa enjoys being around family and friends and sees them as having played a significant role throughout her life.