Ellen has become a role model for others who felt that a career in chemistry was ‘too difficult’ or not for them.
No African female role models
Ellen was first inspired to study chemistry by the exciting practical classes and inter-school competitions at the Academy of Environmental Sciences in Manhattan, New York. From there, she eventually went on to study for her BSc at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. Here she was supported by excellent lecturers, who made chemistry "fun and relatable to the real-world".
Nonetheless, Ellen noticed that there were “no African female role models to aspire to when I embarked on my studies in chemistry”. She goes on to say that “it was purely out of a love for general science in junior high school….that I ended up pursuing pure and applied chemistry”.
Throughout her studies, Ellen remained aware that she was one of very few females of African descent in her classes, and the numbers decreased as her course progressed. But Ellen excelled at chemistry, being named the Best Applied Chemistry Student in her final year, and challenging common preconceptions at that time in South Africa. She quickly became a source of encouragement and inspiration for those around her, who would not otherwise have thought a career in chemistry was right for them.
We asked Ellen why she feels so many groups are underrepresented in the chemical sciences, and she remembers that when she was younger “most avoided chemistry as it was perceived as ‘difficult’ or they had struggled with it at school due to lack of resources or suitably qualified and enthusiastic teachers. Having been in the UK for a while now, I find the same mind set, regardless of race or cultural background, with regard to chemistry being seen as a ‘difficult’ subject.”
For women, one of the major barriers can be the ‘cut-throat’ way in which one has to approach research or get ahead within the scientific community.
“I'm inspired by any females in the chemical sciences who have risen to roles such as heads of departments, deans of faculties, senior managers, vice-presidents or presidents and directors in industry and senior NASA scientists because I know they’ve had to break a lot of barriers and swim against the tide.”
Despite these potential barriers, Ellen’s love of chemistry has led her to achieve great success in a varied career in academia and industry. Not only has chemistry taken her around the world – America, South Africa and the UK - it’s also given her the opportunity to work in many different, exciting environments.
A shared love for chemistry
After graduating with a BSc, Ellen worked for Procter & Gamble in South Africa, as the technical expert for a portfolio of products. She also represented P&G to industry groups, government departments and consultants, and travelled widely, visiting production facilities and sharing knowledge with staff from around the world.
Wanting to further her studies, Ellen ‘momentarily’ left industry to study for her Master's degrees at the University of Pretoria and the University of Strathclyde. She found the skills she’d learned in industry to be invaluable. Although it was difficult to adjust to the slower-paced environment of academia, Ellen found she was focused and determined, and could take a business-minded approach to her research. Before embarking on her PhD, Ellen worked for Piramal Healthcare in Falkirk, as a quality control analyst. Her knowledge of the industrial and commercial chemistry sectors as well as academia, have been vital in helping her progress in her PhD.
Ellen is currently completing her PhD at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. Looking back on her career this far, Ellen says “the best experience has been adapting to different work, study and cultural environments, working with a diverse group of people and meeting people with a shared love of science across all these areas.”
Words by Elizabeth McLoughlin
Images courtesy of Ellen Mwensongole
Published April 2014