Phylis Makurunje is a researcher for the Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials at the University of the Witwatersrand. She specializes in the making of ultra-high temperature composites (UHTCs) for rockets and upcoming space planes, which will reduce intercontinental travel to one hour. Her passion extends to the application of outer space technologies in addressing developmental causes on the African continent. Phylis sits on the executive council of the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) in support of the United Nations programs for space and the President’s Council of Student Advisors for the American Ceramic Society
Why did you get into STEM?
I honestly don’t remember “getting into STEM”; I think I was just born into STEM. Right from my early childhood, I used to design and make a lot of wire cars as toys. When I went to school I was an all rounder but I was always inclined to the science subjects. My dad was very mathematical so he was an inspiration. As I grew older, though, my community always gave the impression that if you were good at sciences you had to become a medical doctor. For a season I got distracted with that notion. Fortunately, when I was completing high school my dad advised me to try engineering. I settled for Chemical Engineering. The first two years felt like “raw science” until we started focusing on engineering design subjects. That is when my curiosity was unleashed. So, I have stayed in STEM because inventing and problem solving come naturally to me. I enjoy working on ideas that make everyone’s everyday life better and easier.
What do you consider your greatest achievements?
I have had some incredible opportunities coming my way recently. For example, in 2018 I was selected to be part of the 21st Session of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), a subsidiary of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in Switzerland. Earlier in 2019 I was part of the 56th Session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) of the United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN-COPUOS) in Austria, and later in the year I was slated to be a speaker and adjudicator for the NASA Space Apps hackathon in Azerbaijan. These doors opened through serving the Space Generation Advisory Council which is a United Nations spin-off organization for young people involved with outer space.
However, what I consider to be my personal greatest achievement was when I discovered my purpose in life. Discovering the field of science communication was an epiphany. Since then I have been focusing my efforts towards talking about outer space technologies – making the concepts simple, amusing and relatable to the ordinary people in developing countries. My dream is to have the world’s most inspiring inventions coming from such unlikely places.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM?
I have had the age card flashed at me more often than any other card. There is an incident I remember vividly when I was employed at one company and I was to have a technical and procurement meeting with a mature trio from a major international supplier – it consisted of a German pair and their South African contact person. I had just replaced a senior gentleman in his sixties who had left as the principal technical person in the company. I am sure the visitors were not expecting to meet someone of my age to be entrusted with such responsibilities. They were very perplexed, and they could not hide it. Before we could proceed with the meeting, they insisted on understanding who I was (even after the formal introductions), what my credentials were and where I had earned them. I played along in a gentle and friendly way, and I could see their faces thawing up gradually. By the time the meeting ended they were certainly convinced that my company had sent the appropriate person for the meeting.
How did you overcome them?
I have always believed in producing “admissible” evidence in the work I do. Talk is not admissible evidence. Stuff has to be done and the results have to be shown. Tangible evidence has to be produced. That is what will make people believe in your work.
The words of Peter Dinklage always echo in my heart, “Don’t wait until they tell you you are ready. The world might say, ‘You are not allowed to yet’. Do not even bother asking, do not bother telling the world you are ready. Show it. Do it!”
What advice do you have for young, budding women in STEM?
You will take the greatest strides in life the day you throw away the need for approval and affirmation. Dreams are always visible to the dreamer but invisible to others. Do not coerce people to see the unseen. Pursue your STEM dream right through. Make it a reality and then people will believe it. My mentor Mrs. Maureen Beryl Shana always says, “Every dream is great when greatly pursued.” May you have the courage to pursue your dreams, because dreams do come true!