Dr Ellen Mwenesongole has dedicated her life to improving the field of forensic science in Africa, by helping develop forensic science programmes across two universities in two countries, while also conducting her own important research on characterising street drugs and hair examination.
“From a very young age I knew I wanted to be a scientist,” says Ellen.
“Initially I thought I would become a veterinarian or a medical doctor, but because we moved around a lot that path sort of fizzled out. So although it wasn’t originally what I wanted to do, I ended up studying chemistry and loved it!”
After returning to Zambia, Ellen eventually moved to South Africa where she got a place at the University of Kwazulu-Natal to study pure and applied chemistry, where her academic excellence was recognised through an award and a place on the Dean’s List of Academic Achievers.
People would say to me, ‘Why are you doing chemistry, it’s so hard!’ But truthfully I found it generally easy! Yes, I struggled with some topics, such as physical chemistry, but otherwise the rest was a breeze. I think this outlook does put some people off, so I want to try and bust the myth.
After graduating, Ellen took up an industry role, working as a Senior Scientist and Technical External Relations Manager for Procter & Gamble (P&G) in South Africa, representing the company within industry groups, government departments and at conferences. The role also enabled her to travel around the world to gain further technical expertise at the various P&G locations as well as share best practice from South Africa. But she was soon back at her studies, completing two Master’s degrees in chemistry and forensic science, at the University of Pretoria in South Africa and at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, respectively. Next she embarked on her PhD in Forensic Science at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, where she first became a member of the RSC.
“While studying in Cambridge, I took the chance to go to as many events as I could! I often went down to Burlington House in London and took part in networking events, seminars and workshops. It was so useful being able to make connections and get involved in the scientific community. People get to know who you are, especially when you have the opportunity to present a paper, which is great for your CV too.
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“It was amazing to be exposed to Nobel Prize winners and learn from their experiences. I was especially interested to hear how women had made it through the system and how they managed their work life balance. As a woman in science, having mentors and role models is so important.”
I became a member because I knew being part of a professional organisation would help with career progression and there is a certain respect that comes along with it. But I gradually came to learn that there were many more benefits. I started participating in conferences, taking advantage of the funding available for travel and accommodation – I got to go to Poland for an event – and I became more aware of what the RSC was about.
After completing her PhD in the UK, Ellen knew that she wanted to return home and apply her expertise to the forensic science field in Africa, where she felt she could make a real difference.
“I wanted to give something back to my country and to the continent. There are very few forensic scientists within the academic field in South Africa, and more widely, they really struggle to recruit. So I started working in a Doping Control Laboratory, which happened to be on the same premises as the University of the Free State (UFS) in Bloemfontein. They were looking for a forensic science lecturer to start a course there, so I leapt at the opportunity.
“After two years at UFS, I moved to the Botswana International University of Science & Technology, where I am spearheading the development of a forensic science programme here too. For me, creating the new curriculum has been interesting and also a challenge. I have enjoyed contributing to an improved criminal justice system, laying the foundation for both countries and making a real tangible impact. We are producing a pool of new highly skilled, work-ready graduates with good, rounded perspectives.
There has been very positive feedback from various stakeholders, including law enforcement agencies in both countries. They have been impressed by our graduates’ understanding of the key aspects of forensic science including the importance of maintaining a chain of custody, so they don’t take as long to train up.
“We also encourage entrepreneurship and inspire students to look outside of the box for opportunities to start their own businesses and create their own innovative products/solutions for the forensic science field.”
Living and working in Botswana, Ellen has overcome many challenges while teaching, researching and building the new forensic science programme. But her resourcefulness and determination has meant that students are getting a well-rounded education with access to well-equipped laboratories.
“Finding funding for equipment has been difficult. Universities here tend to get excited about offering forensic science as a degree programme due to its mainstream popularity, so they will put it down as a programme they are offering before they have the relevant staff or equipment. The staff who are hired come in and there is nothing on the ground. They are teaching a new programme while also trying to stock up the lab and get the right forensic-specific equipment. It’s a big job, especially when you are busy lecturing. You don’t want to disadvantage the students.
“You end up having to improvise a lot – we bought cheap face powder and make-up brushes from the local shops to use for a fingerprint analysis practical, while we waited for proper equipment to be shipped from places in Europe and America, which takes a long time. We have had to spend from our own pocket to get some of the basic resources that we needed to run practicals. But it’s worth it to give the students the best experience. Now the lab is almost fully stocked and the current students are really happy!”
To make sure her students are exposed to a wider global perspective, Ellen uses examples from the RSC’s magazine, Chemistry World, to aid her lecturing – especially when it comes to correct lab safety procedures.
“In this part of the world sometimes practices can be pretty lax and we want to improve that. Some of my students think I’m nagging when I ask them to put on their PPE, but coming from the UK I know how strict we need to be. This is serious stuff.
“I use materials from the magazine to help teach my students about professionalism, ethics and competency within the forensic science arena – stories about miscarriages of justice that have resulted from falsifying information and data manipulation. These real world examples show how forensic science affects people’s lives. You can end up playing a major role in putting the wrong person away or letting the wrong person go free. Integrity in this job is vital.
Also, for me, it’s really useful having a physical copy of the magazine. To give some perspective, internet access here is not as broad as the UK, for example, and mobile data is expensive. Here it’s mostly confined to work. So when I’m busy all day, it’s nice to be able to take the magazine home and get up to date in the evenings.
Ellen is already considering her next venture to help promote science careers to young people, after being inspired by a story in Chemistry World about a mobile laboratory in the UK that tours schools to demonstrate experiments.
“It’s something I would love to start here. Some high schools here don’t have lab equipment or functioning laboratories. The Department of Chemical & Forensic Science at BIUST has already linked up with a local school and they plan to bring the students here to do practical experiments that they wouldn’t get the chance to do otherwise. So I feel like a mobile lab would be the next step!”