Dr Rebecca Maserumule: A bright spark for women and SA
Several decades ago, when apartheid laws restricted the freedom of movement of the
black population, women organised themselves and marched to the Union Buildings to protest unjust pass laws. The 20 000 women who partici- pated in the iconic 9 August 1956
Women’s March changed the course of history. Led by struggle icons Lilian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, Sophia Williams-de Bruyn and Helen Joseph, they dispelled the then stereotype that cast women as politically inept and best suited to being stay-at-home wives.
Today, just over two decades after the advent of democracy, an equally impressive generation of women is continuing to show that gender should never be allowed to limit personal growth and achievement. Inspiring young girls and showing men that women are powerful and capable is Dr Rebecca Maserumule, the Chief Director for Hydrogen and Energy at the Department of Science and Technology. This innovative thinker holds a doctorate in mathematics. She is one of the many black women in the public service who are using their scientific research capabilities to elevate the black African child, particularly girls, in the fields of science, technology and innovation, and to help them become ambassadors for positive change.
While her efforts might not necessarily place her next to the struggle stalwarts in history books, her work and her story are likely to spur other women in the public service to play their part in addressing the country’s socio-economic challenges and national energy needs.
Transformation and gender inclusivity
In an interview with PSM, Dr Mase- rumule said transformation and gender inclusivity are central to the department’s strategy across all programmes.
One of the key strategic objectives of the Department of Science and Technology is innovation in support of economic development. On an annual basis, most of the research, development and innova- tion programmes are focused on moving new products and processes from lab to market.
“The Department of Science and Technology is responsible for funding the generation of the new knowledge and once the product is ready for manufacturing, then developmental funding institutions play a role.
“Routinely meetings are held with funding stakeholders like the Industrial Development Corporation, Development Bank of Southern Africa or entrepreneurs to support the commercialisation of new technologies with a view that the backbone is transformation
in a meaningful way. We say we want black female entrepreneurs who can help with such growth,” she said.
She said that issues of inclusive development are key to govern- ment policy. Often, black women face the most challenges.
Dr Maserumule said most of the department’s programmes that are anchored in transformation have been institutionalised, but transformation does not happen overnight, which is why long-term monitoring mechanisms are in place.
Dr Maserumule said that transformation is part of the department’s day-to-day operations.
If an official submits a funding list that is dominated by male beneficiaries, tough questions are asked.
“If you look at the percentage of women in STEM fields, I think 20 percent are women and
80 percent are male.
“But in terms of our research, development and innovation pro- grammes, we are looking at
40 percent female and 60 percent male graduating.”
She believes the favourable numbers achieved by the department are a result of gender transformation being institutionalised in the department’s programmes.
Journey into the public service
After obtaining her undergraduate degree in applied mathematics at the University of Rochester in New York in 1996, Dr Maserumule went on to obtain her master’s degree in 1999. She then completed her doctorate in mathematics, with a focus on computational fluid dynamics, from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
As part of her thesis for her PhD, Dr Maserumule’s research looked at predicting when underground aquifer systems are at risk for contamination due to the changing rainfall patterns.
One of the biggest risks that government faces in terms of underground water resources, she believes, is trying to predict when they could become contaminated.
Her first job was in 2006, when she joined the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) as a senior researcher, working in the natural resource and environmental unit. While at CSIR, she continued her research into underground water resources looking at the effects of climate change because underground water resources in southern Africa could be under threat.
“The reason why this research is important is that our temperatures are changing and over time, this increase in temperature will have a huge impact on rainfall patterns,” she warned.
As temperatures increase, rainfall becomes more violent – putting underground water resources at risk.
Her research focused on prediction-making as a measure to manage risk. Just how crucial this research is was brought home recently when government declared several provinces, including the Western Cape, as national disaster areas after they experienced the worst drought in years.
The City of Cape Town then im- plemented stringent water restric- tions, with dam levels dipping to 20.9 percent in April 2018. Evidence of Dr Maserumule’s forward-thinking in the choice of her research topic was also highlighted in January 2018, when the City of Cape Town turned to its Cape Flats, Table Mountain Group and Atlantis aquifers to source 150 million litres of groundwater per day to delay what became known as Day Zero – the day the metro would be forced to close its taps and have residents collect water from designated points.
Benefits of science
Dr Maserumule said the recent drought challenges are proof that science can have an impact on decision-making at policy level if advice is given at the right time. “Often, the knowledge is there but is not utilised effectively when deci- sions are made. I think that Cape Town’s water challenges were pre- dicted years ago,” she said, adding that while people always work efficiently in emergencies, it would be better to work in such a way that emergencies are reduced.
She said South Africa has the best researchers in the world but that there is a need for government to increase its investment in research and development in order to safe-guard the future.
“The [conclusion of the research] was that the prevalence of contaminated aquifer systems… will increase because of the varied rainfall. One of the recommendations was that we need to increase our monitoring and look for alternative sources of alternative water resources such as storm water harvesting.” she said.
Dr Maserumule explained that her research was later published and cited by other researchers. She later shifted her focus to the energy sector after joining the National Department of Energy as the Deputy Director: Business Process Management.
Her role included analysing the impact of policy and the economy on the energy demands of South Africa in support of evidence- based policy development of the Integrated Energy Plan as well as the National Energy Efficiency Strategy.
Powering SA’s energy mix
Dr Maserumule said her core duty at the Department of Science and Technology revolves around developing policies and strategies to grow a competitive energy sector that is based on varied technologies that use the comparative advantages of South Africa.
She said South Africa can have a competitive advantage when it comes to diverse energy sources. “We can be world leaders in this area,” she added, mentioning the country’s platinum and manganese resources; and battery, fuel cell and photovoltaic panel technology.
Dr Maserumule explained that her role involves offering advice across all sectors of the economy – especially the public and the private sectors – on alternative, forward-looking technologies in the sustainable energy space to help them remain competitive.
Advice is often offered to the executive authority on matters of policy in the space of innovation and sustainable energy technologies.
“We give advice to ministers; we sometimes give them briefing notes when there could be foreign poli- cies up for review and we advise the private sector with regard to South Africa’s competitive advantages. We say to them,‘Partner with us because we have A, B or C,'" she said.
Use of technologies
The department’s advice also looks at encouraging the use of technologies or energy carriers that may not necessarily be conventional but will be key in the future.
“For instance, with the Department of Transport, they have a green transport strategy. We have been collecting data for the past 10 years to inform policy.
“At the same time, because we institutionalise some of the work of the department at institutions such as universities and science coun- cils, we can help with the demonstration of some of these alternative technologies. We have the scientists in place to do the tests, to monitor, so that if you want to bring in a new technology, like hydrogen fuel, we can test this in practice in a real world environment,” she said.
One of the projects she worked on in relation to alternative tech- nologies in the renewable energy space was the launch of a hydrogen fuel cell system using renewable energy at a school in the North West.
Recently launched by Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane at the Poelano Secondary School, the 2.5kW Hydrogen Fuel Cell System is aimed at ensuring that the rural school continues to access off-grid electricity for information communi- cation technology and lighting.
The school has 486 pupils and was hand-picked for the project that is intended to showcase the ability of renewable energy to meet the needs of communities which have no access to Eskom power.
Part of that process was to pro- vide education material for the students, which informed them of the high school subjects and uni- versity courses needed to become a chemical engineer one day and to work in the fuel cell sector. Learners were taught about fuel cell technology and how it is environmentally sound.
“The fuel cells are on school grounds. So again, it is an opportunity to learn about science and technology in a practical way. Like I said, we are informing the students about opportunities. So in a sense, we are informing the public – the parents and the students – by doing practical work in the school yard,” she added.
Growing human capital
The project also fits in with one of the roles she plays in the department: growing human capital and applying scientific knowledge to address the country’s socio-economic needs.
“At the end of the day, we want to create new sectors, which means jobs, but we want to ensure that local talent can be considered for these new jobs, which means we create a new workforce that will be working in the new sectors.”
She said one of her favourite quotes from when she first became a chief director two years ago is: “Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it until you grow into the person who can”.
“This is me talking about not worrying about leaving your comfort zone when you try to accomplish a task. I always say that you are not doing something great until you need partnerships to do it, which speaks to the importance of partnerships. Essentially, the country has a lot of challenges and as a public servant, you can get discouraged but what keeps me coming into the office every day is the desire to make life better for those who live in South Africa,” she said, urging that when discouragement sets in, pub- lic servants need to remember that they can rise to the challenge.
“Everything that I do when I get to work, every moment that I am at work, is for the public; that keeps me focused. When I make a decision, my decision is always based on the questions: ‘Is this taking the country forward? Are our citizens benefitting?’ I think South Africa is a great country and from year to year, it improves and grows.
“I want to be part of that excellence,” she said.