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Dr Mkhosi is breaking barriers

Growing up on a farm, Mkhosi’s family didn’t even have a radio station to listen to. The schools she attended lacked critical resources like computers and labs. “We wouldn’t do experiments, we wouldn’t go anywhere to see where what we learned was being applied,” she explained. “We just learnt from textbooks.”

Mkhosi finished high school with some help along the way. One of her principals paid her school fees when her parents could not afford them. Her older brother, Sipho, put his own education on hold to make sure his sisters fulfilled their potential.

Professional careers in the village were limited to becoming a teacher, nurse, police officer or maybe a soldier, Mkhosi said. So, she earned a Bachelor of Education and taught first at a high school and later at North-West University as a junior lecturer. In 1998, she began a Master’s programme in physics at the university’s urging. They wanted to add the first female physics lecturer to their ranks and Mkhosi was the most qualified.

During the Physics Society’s educational tour in Cape Town, Mkhosi made two life-changing visits to a nuclear power plant and a research laboratory focused on nuclear science and radiation medicine for cancer treatment. “It was fascinating to me because, for the first time in my life, I realised that I can use what I’m learning in the world and it can be of benefit to people,” she said.

Although there weren’t any nuclear engineering programmes offered in South Africa at that time, Mkhosi vowed that if she ever got the opportunity, she would do whatever was necessary to enter that field.

Pursuing opportunities abroad

Her opportunity came in 2000 when she applied and was selected to pursue doctoral studies in nuclear engineering at Ohio State through the Tertiary Education Linkages Project, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and United Negro College Fund.

Due to administrative delays, Mkhosi arrived in Ohio three months after the academic year began. She faced many obstacles at first – she was behind, she had no prior experience in nuclear engineering and she had left her five-month-old daughter, young son and husband to pursue her studies. But the encouraging environment she found at Ohio State helped her find her way.

“The support was just awesome. The whole faculty, graduate students, everybody wanted to be part of my success,” Mkhosi said. “They wanted you to succeed and be welcome on campus as well as in a foreign country.” In 2007, Mkhosi became the third woman to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering at Ohio State. One of the first women to do so, Professor Audeen Fentiman, was one of Mkhosi’s mentors.

Applying her skills at home

After completing one year of postdoctoral research at Purdue University with Fentiman, Mkhosi returned home and worked for the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, as a senior nuclear engineering analyst.

She also worked at the Technology Innovation Agency where managed programmes that help researchers and innovators develop their ideas into products that could eventually be commercialised. Mkhosi established the Youth Technology Innovation Fund, which is geared towards innovators aged 30 or younger.

Now, as the inaugural director of the Centre for Nuclear Safety and Security, Mkhosi leads efforts to create a pipeline of trained talent who can support the National Nuclear Regulator and the nuclear sector. The centre also leads nuclear safety education and training, research and development, and provides safety expertise throughout the country and to other African nations.

Mkhosi’s job is to provide leadership to the centre and maintain strategic relationships with all of the centre’s partners.

Showing others the way

Achieving her dream wasn’t easy, she acknowledged. But Mkhosi said she chose not to listen to those who told her she would not succeed.

“In the beginning, people would ridicule me, people would tell me you’re crazy, you can’t major in physics. No woman at North-West University has majored in physics,” she said. “But I did and I succeeded. Sometimes, even if we are motivated or have the ability to reach our potential, we don’t pursue our goals just because people put it in our minds that we cannot do it.”

Inspired by those barriers, she vowed to help other women succeed as well. Mkhosi mentors women of all ages, from girls in her home village to work colleagues. She first saw the power of mentoring at Ohio State while participating in the Women in Engineering Programme and knew the impact it could have in South Africa.

Since returning home she’s been active in Women in Nuclear Global, a worldwide association for professional women working in nuclear energy, and Women in Nuclear South Africa, where she served two terms as president. She is now the Women in Nuclear Global Executive for Africa Region, providing mentorship to women across the continent.

Mkhosi also launched Charity at Home, an initiative that aims to get kids excited about STEM fields so they understand the role these fields play in everyday life.

Her advice to the young women she works with reflects her own secret to success. “When there’s an opportunity that someone is giving you, work hard and do everything with diligence and integrity,” Mkhosi said. “If you work hard, and have integrity and self-motivation, you will be able to achieve your goals, because the results don’t lie.”

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